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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Satellite Imagery May Help Growers
By Kevin Bouffard

One day, perhaps as soon as the next decade, that morning glass of orange juice or grapefruit half may owe as much to events miles high in the sky as to what happened on the ground. The Florida Department of Citrus has been working with NASA for almost three years to determine how satellite technology can help the state's citrus industry track grove acreage and tree numbers, and eventually spot the early signs of diseases.

Dan King, the department's director of scientific research, said the $2.5 million research project has made strides in both areas but much more needs to be done.

Also participating in the research, based at NASA's Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, is the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.

Born and raised in Winter Haven, King earned a bachelor's degree in botany at the University of South Florida in 1968. During the following six years, he received a master's degree in botany and doctorate in plant physiology, both at Indiana University in Bloomington.

King joined the Citrus Department in June 2006 after working for five years supervising data collection on the state's citrus juice production at the Florida Citrus Processors Association. The association returned that state-mandated responsibility back to the Citrus Department.

King was appointed the director of scientific research in April.

Q. What are the ultimate goals of the satellite research program?

A. One of the goals is to provide a multi-level analytical tool. Multi-level means from the individual grove up to the government agency level.

The areas of information are all based on satellite imagery and software interpretation that allows us to develop a database of information.

Our goals are to look at such things as crop acreage, tree numbers, yields, productivity and tree health.

Q. What's the progress so far?

A. The progress so far has been to move from feasibility of using space imagery and the information we can gather from that imagery toward being able to translate that into computer systems analyzing that data and actually providing information.

It's certainly feasible to use data imagery to determine acreage of citrus crops. It is feasible at higher resolution imagery to count the number of trees there. So satellite imagery can be used to see changes in the crops.

Q. When do you foresee that a satellite survey will replace the present USDA aerial survey?

A. I don't think the present methods will be totally replaced.

Productivity is generally not determined from satellite imagery. It must be picked up either from historical data or current very local data more so than what a satellite can get from miles above the Earth.

What we're trying to do is give people more tools so they can integrate them with the tools they already work with.

Q. How can satellites be used to detect diseases, such as canker and greening?

A. We are working on being able to find signatures on such things as citrus greening, and those signatures will be used to evaluate imagery.

The ground surveyors can then focus their attention on those suspicious areas. They still have to survey all trees, but the focus of interest and the verification of disease can be where the stress indicators are shown.

Over time, we hope to be able to tell one signature from another - one type of disease or stress phenomenon from another. We can now (detect) disease issues that may involve mineral nutrition, where the leaves start changing color.

Q. When do you envision satellites can play a significant role in pest and disease detection?

A. The data we are currently gathering and the research being proposed and carried forward now suggests that within two to three years, we should have an answer as to whether this is truly a capability we can generate from aerial or satellite imagery.

It doesn't tell us we'll be able to identify canker or greening from the imagery in that period of time, but it should tell us whether or not we can continue developing these types of software and analytical programs and be effective enough to give us a greater advantage in identifying disease than what we have.

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