Scientists at NASA have successfully deployed an advanced airborne imaging instrument to help grape growers identify the early signs of a devastating crop-killing disease.
The disease, grapevine leafroll-associated virus complex 3, aka GLRaV-3, is believed to be responsible for billions in damage and losses each year for U.S. grape growers and vintners.
The disease is spread mostly by insects and can cause reduced crop yields and soured fruits.
Treating the disease early on is critical for grape growers, but early detection is expensive and requires molecular testing and thorough “vine-by-vine” inspections, NASA said.
“Like humans, sick plants may not exhibit outward symptoms right away, making early detection the greatest challenge facing growers,” said plant pathologist Katie Gold, an assistant professor at Cornell University and senior author of the study.
Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California were able to use an imaging system mounted in the belly of a research plane to fly over crops in Lodi, one of the epicenters of California’s grape industry, and successfully identify the early stages of the disease before symptoms were even visible to the human eye.
NASA’s next-generation Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG) uses an optical sensor to record the interaction of sunlight with chemical bonds. It’s been deployed in other parts of the world to monitor wildfires, oil spills, greenhouse gases, and air pollution associated with volcanic eruptions, NASA said.
But researchers wondered if there was additional utility in the agriculture industry and the hypothesis was put to the test.
“It can take up to a year before a vine betrays the telltale signs of infection, such as discolored foliage and stunted fruit,” NASA said in a post on the JPL website. “However, on the cellular level, stress is well underway before then, changing how sunlight interacts with plant tissue.”
The plane flew over more than 11,000 acres of grape crops. Using the advanced tool in conjunction with machine learning and specially trained computer models, researchers discovered they could differentiate between infected and non-infected vines before and after they became symptomatic with up to 87% accuracy.
The massive endeavor required the cooperation of crews on the ground who combed through 300 acres of crops in the middle of a heatwave to evaluate and confirm the system’s hunches.
“Without the hard work of the growers, industry collaborators, and the scouting teams, none of what we accomplished would have been possible,” Gold said.
Early detection of the disease could give farmers as much as a year to prepare and combat a disease outbreak, NASA said.
Researchers say the promising results of the study could lead to a breakthrough in early treatment and prevention of crop diseases across the globe.
“What we did with this study targets one area of California for one disease,” said co-author Ryan Pavlick, a research technologist at JPL. “The ultimate vision that we have is being able to do this across the planet for many crop diseases and for growers all over the world.”
For more on the study and the tools used by NASA, click here.