CASE STUDY: Drone Helps Avocado Growers Spot Laurel Wilt Disease


SUMMARY: UAV's can help identify diseased trees from the air, and send dogs and ground personnel to specific tree for further analysis to help stop the spread of disease and infection among various crops. This can help mitigate crop damage and loss. PROBLEM: The Redbay Ambrosia beetle is wreaking havoc upon avocado trees. The beetle is about the size of a grain of rice. Research indicates it probably first arrived as a stowaway from Southeast Asia in 2002 or 2003. The beetle targets the laurel tree and bores a matchstick size hold in the trunk where it then inserts the spores of a fungus called Raffaelea lauricola that it uses to grow food for itself and its offspring. When the tree senses this fungus growing inside it (like a cancer) it starts to shut down -- starving itself from water and nutrients. Known as "Laurel Wilt," eventually the tree will die if not treated. By 2007, the beetle had found its way to South Florida and started attacking, and decimating, avocado trees in Miami-Dade County.

SOLUTION: Researchers at Florida International University (FIU) have created an innovative detection program that uses drones and dogs to help fight the onslaught. Scientists fly drones over avocado groves to spot potentially infected trees. The camera on the drone identifies color changes that indicate stress in the trees' canopy, then disease-sniffing dogs race in to assess which trees are affected even before they are symptomatic. Because an avocado tree can suffer from myriad other problems — drought, lightning strike, root rot, fruit load, etc. — Dr. John Mills says dogs' sniffers provide the "ground truth" of data that drones have collected from above.

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