Growing Greener Grass with Drones

By Chris Roquemore, Patten Seed Company

What if I told you that sod farmers are developing super powers?

It may sound far-fetched but you might not think so after a quick read. Multispectral sensors are becoming widely available and take pictures within bands of light our human eyes simply cannot see. These images can then be processed to show us information unlike anything we have ever been able to see before.

Being able to look at turf in a new way is going to allow us to make better decisions on management and use exponentially fewer pesticides, less water and less fertilizer - making an already green industry even greener. Investing in further preserving our natural world sounds pretty super to me!

Super Power sod

Beyond the Visible Spectrum

Within the entire spectrum of light, the human eye can only detect a very small amount of what we call visible light 390-750nm. A honey bee can see from 300-650nm so they can’t detect red like we can but they can detect ultraviolet light that we cannot. The entire light spectrum is massive and the fraction we can see is about 1/100,000,000,000,000 of the whole thing. Think of how much we are missing!

Multispectral imaging is about seeing into these other bands of light and converting it to an image that we can see. The implications of this could change the turf world as much as X-rays (another band of light we can’t see) changed the medical field.

Seeing More with Photography

Once these images are processed and calculated using the different indexes, they can start to show us some really interesting items. You can:

  • Precisely quantify the amount of chlorophyll in a plant
  • See the amount of photosynthesis taking place
  • Measure plant and soil moisture
  • Visualize plant stress
  • and so much more...

Currently there are over 150 available indexes that have been published and made available. Each one can potentially show us an entire array of things we never knew about turf, and thousands or millions more could be on the horizon.

Embracing the Next Farming Revolution

Below you will see some of the preliminary work we are doing with this new drone technology at Super-Sod. First you will see the birds eye view of what the field looks like to the human eye and then some examples of multispectral imaging.

Perhaps you will think that most of the information is obvious from the conventional photograph and that is true. This is a healthy TifTuf Bermuda field with no problems that we are using as a standard. In future research we will be looking for issues and when or how they can be detected the earliest. Finding that precise moment when a turf problem first disrupts a plant process, such as photosynthesis, will open doors we never knew existed.



Here is a set of 80 conventional photographs stitched together showing what we can see with the human eye. This is a TifTuf Bermuda field at a Super-Sod farm in Middle Georgia and all of the following pictures are of the same section of this field.


Standard NDVI

This index shows the reflectance value of the plants and gives you a good overview of plant health. This is the index where I would expect to start identifying different stresses and the way they appear early.


NDVI Saturated

This is the same index but more saturated to show coverage of the turf. It could prove to be valuable to our harvester drivers in picking the best spots a field offers to harvest the highest quality sod possible.



This index is also looking at the health of the plant but has the ability to filter out any biases created by the different reflectance properties of the soil. It will help compare TifTuf Bermuda grown in the various soil types of Middle Georgia to TifTuf in the sand-based soils of South Carolina.



This index shows the chlorophyll content of the plant. Imagine what we can learn about the plant by watching this cycle throughout the seasons, through diverse weather patterns and growing conditions.



This index constructed zones that could be fed to the computer of a fertilizer spreader or sprayer so that each zone could get a prescribed treatment vs a blanket treatment over the whole field. It will enable feeding and treating the plants that need it and not the ones that don’t.


The High-Tech Future of Farming is Now

So what does this actually mean? Can it affect real life farming and not just lab studies? Yes and Yes!

  • We are working towards being able to treat single weeds versus entire fields. Pesticide use could drop to 1% of what was once required!
  • Irrigation can be targeted to exactly where it is needed and skip areas that it is not. Water consumption could drop by 25%.
  • Stress and disease within turf could be found, treated and cured long before it even became visible to the eye. Early treatment would be so much more environmentally friendly and financially efficient.
  • Fertilizer composition, quantity and application areas could all be fine-tuned to meet the exact needs of the turf without any excess use. Overall fertilizer use could drop significantly.

All of these possibilities aren’t just pipe dreams that belong in a sci-fi movie. They are real and being implemented on the farms as we speak.

So yes, our sod farmers are developing super powers that will make our products better, our customers happier, and our world cleaner and greener!

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