MSU Doctoral Student Receives Remote Sensing Fellowship
March 3, 2021 | View PDF
Bozeman - Montana State University doctoral student Erik Killian was recently recognized for his work in utilizing publicly accessible technology to approach precision agriculture research and was awarded a fellowship from the remote sensing body MontanaView to further his research.
Killian, who received his bachelor's degree in environmental sciences from the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU's College of Agriculture in the spring of 2020, returned to the college's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology to pursue his doctorate. He conducts research with assistant professor Jennifer Lachowiec and partners with several of MSU's campus farms in Bozeman, as well as assistant professor Jed Eberly at MSU's Central Agricultural Research Center in Moccasin.
Originally from Vermont, Killian blends unmanned aerial vehicles - known as UAVs or drones - with his interest in plant genetics to learn more about trends in crop emergence dates and to expand precision agriculture knowledge across Montana's diverse landscapes. He said that, rather than having to physically move through a field looking at plant emergence, using drones allows for the collection of more comprehensive data in less time and with less labor.
"This particular project began in 2019 with Dr. Lachoweic's interest in plant emergence timing," said Killian. "Grouped emergence timing helps with overall yield by keeping competition between plants for soil space and sunlight most equal. Using UAVs can help by cutting down the amount of work it takes to monitor that at a field level."
Killian's work uses entirely open-source computer programs to process data and images he collects in the field. Using such programs and making them more accessible is one of the missions of MontanaView, the state branch of the larger consortium AmericaView, which has branches in 41 states. Open-source programs are designed by their creators to be free and available to the public, but they can be less polished and user friendly than some proprietary programs. Killian hopes his work can help create resources for everyday users to become familiar with some of the program options available.
"With this project I'm trying to create a workflow that other people can follow to make these options more accessible," Killian said. "Rather than having to do all the work themselves, people could use these examples to learn more about these tools and simplify the process."
Monitoring emergence through Killian's project can help dial in when to plant and how to maximize the efficiency of fertilizer and irrigation application, especially given Montana's wide range of climates and agricultural landscapes.
"One of the most direct applications of Erik's work relates right here in central Montana with the shallower soils we have," said Eberly. "We've been able to demonstrate, primarily through satellite imagery, that we can map soil depth across a field. Knowing the depth of our soil in a moisture-limited environment allows us to know more about how our crops will grow. Using drone imagery gives us much higher resolution and opens up even more things we can do in precision agriculture."
Killian was one of 10 MontanaView fellowship recipients. Other honorees came from the University of Montana, Salish Kootenai College and Montana Tech. With the fellowship, Killian will receive $1,500 to continue his research at a number of agricultural sites around the state. He will also present at the annual MontanaView conference in April, where he will share his work with producers and remote sensing specialists.
According to Lachowiec, Killian's open-source approach opens up new possibilities for remote sensing in precision agriculture.
"Even though emergence is the focus of this particular project, we hope this can be easily modified to look at other things, like yield and temperature," she said. "There's a lot of control in the hands of the user with this approach. There's so much that this technology can be used for that your imagination is really the limit."