DURHAM, N.H. (CBS/AP) — University of New Hampshire researchers are using a remote-controlled helicopter to help apple orchards pinpoint problems and protect their crops against blemishes that render the apples unmarketable.

The low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle is loaded with GPS and infrared technology that can see pests or early infections caused by the apple scab fungus, which causes dark blemishes on the leaves and skin of apples. Instead of a farmer spending a full day scouting an orchard for problems, the helicopter can do daily surveillance in a short amount of time.

Kirk Broders, a UNH plant pathologist, and doctoral student Matt Wallhead are working with Massachusetts-based Rotary Robotics to build the vehicles, which they expect to cost about $2,500.

“We aim to create an (unmanned aerial vehicle) that an independent researcher or grower could afford,” Broders said.

Building low-cost aerial surveillance drones is a central mission for Rotary Robotics, a start-up company that promotes its products with the Drones for Peace brand. Aerial photography is a prime market for the drones, which have flown at air shows and over the Martha’s Vineyard Shark Tournament.

The researchers expect that in addition to smaller orchards, their vehicle could be used to monitor large row crops such as corn, soybeans, rice and wheat to detect disease outbreaks and assess overall crop health. They are fine-tuning their prototype and practicing by flying it over UNH-owned farms. The final product is about five years away from the marketplace, they estimate.

While Broders and Wallhead are among the first researchers to use such technology for apples, similar vehicles increasingly are being used for non-military purposes, such as monitoring vineyards or tracking endangered animals.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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