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Students Closer to Disease Detection through Automated Scanning

April 22, 2018

Pierce’s Disease costs California grape growers over $104 million annually by infecting and killing vines. Undergraduate students in the Engineering Service Learning at the University of California, Merced have been working closely with the UC Cooperative Extension for designing a drone that will scan for a disease found in grapes.  The Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Engineering Service Learning team is designing an open-source software package that will identify Pierce's disease in grapes after being scanned by a drone. 

“The drone will travel along a path set by the user, and take multiple snapshots of the plants, which are then cross-referenced,” explains UAS Assistant Project Manager Samuel Leventini. “The finished project will allow the clients to identify the infected plants without having to spend time searching in the field, and also allows the user to spend more time on other facets of the farm.”   The Engineering Service Learning students focus on the user experience to ensure that the software is easily used by their end-users, in this case, grape farmers.

The software package uses the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) to analyze pictures taken by the drone. The pigment of leaves strongly indicates a plant's health and the leaf colors in the captured images of grapes are measured in comparison to NDVI. The results are a combined image of the crops that show plant stress.  With this system, this project will not only capture pictures of fields but also identify Pierce’s Disease before it spreads to other vines.

At UCCE, Pomology Farm Advisor David Doll has been part of the UAS project for over six years. He commends the team’s ability to build on the knowledge and work by prior semesters.  Engineering Service Learning students work on real-world long-term projects that tailor to the needs of the community.  The Pierces’ Disease project has been going on for multiple years as the students involved learn valuable professional and technical skills needed to apply technology to agriculture and complete the project.

While the application of drones, especially in agriculture, is still in its baby stages, the industry is exploding as accessibility to users becomes more globally widespread.  Agricultural drones are being used to detect other diseases and plant stress on crops, but are at times cost prohibitive to contract out for these services.  The UAS team is working in a unique sector of this industry to bring this technology to growers at affordable costs.  “Growers of all sizes are affected by this disease.  One of the main objectives of this project is to bring this technology to everyone, not just large-scale farmers,” says Chris Butler Assistant Director of the Engineering Service Learning program.

 “I didn’t expect our work to have such an impact with using drones for agriculture,” said UAS Team Leader Nathan Ibarra.” “Applying UAS technology to another field of practice keeps me motivated for the project since it will prevent crop destruction on a worldwide scale.”

 Additional information on the UAS team and UCCE can be found at and