UAV tracks down pathogens

A Virginia Tech plant pathologist has developed autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to detect airborne pathogens above agricultural fields.

Prof David Schmale from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has linked agriculture and engineering with his interdisciplinary research to provide an unprecedented glimpse into the life of micro-organisms hundreds of metres above the surface of the earth.

Scientists have used aircraft to monitor the movement of airborne pathogens for years, but Schmale is the first plant pathologist to use an autonomous system for this process.

‘Autonomous UAVs have distinct advantages over a sampling aircraft operated via remote control,’ Schmale said. ‘First, the autonomous UAVs maintain a very precise sampling path. We can establish a GPS waypoint in the centre of an agricultural field, and the autonomous plane can circle around the waypoint at a set altitude, with about a metre variation up and down. Second, the autonomous technology enables us to have coordinated flight with multiple aircraft. In other words, we can have two aircraft sampling pathogens at the same time but at different altitudes.’

Schmale has used the UAVs to collect samples of the fungal genus Fusarium tens to hundreds of metres above the surface of the earth. This genus contains some of the world’s most devastating plant and animal pathogens and remains largely a mystery to scientists who do not have a firm understanding of its ability to travel long distances in the atmosphere.

His results have led Schmale to hypothesise that some airborne micro-organisms have novel biochemical processes for interacting with each other as a community of organisms in the atmosphere.