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YangAs a girl in China, Ce Yang helped pull weeds by hand on her grandparents’ farm. She grew up and went to college to study electrical engineering, where she was introduced to agricultural engineering and how sensors could help in monitoring plant growth. Her career path was re-mapped by attending graduate school at China Agricultural University to study precision agriculture, where she became interested in remote sensing and image processing.

She enrolled in graduate school at the University of Florida in 2009, where she used hyperspectral imaging to help blueberry growers. “Florida blueberries are harvested by hand. Harvest labor takes more than half of the total management cost. With only two to three weeks harvest window, it is critical to find ways in estimating the best harvesting time and labor deployment for different areas in a large blueberry field,” she says.

Then she realized that using hyperspectral aerial images gathered via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could give producers and researchers the highly accurate, timely information about field conditions they needed. She moved her research to CFANS in 2014, in part, she says, because “Precision agriculture originated here. I feel honored to be here. With the strong support from the college and departments, I quickly started my research on airborne hyperspectral imaging for precision agriculture.”

As an assistant professor in two departments—Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering; and Soil, Water and Climate—she’s using advanced technology that poses huge potential in helping growers and researchers. In one project, hyperspectral and color imaging helps wheat breeders select varieties based on how they perform in a field-scale setting. In another, a research assistant in her lab is working on ways to use spectral imaging for targeted nitrogen application in cornfields, potentially increasing yield and reducing the amount of nitrogen in surface and ground water as well as saving fertilizer costs for farmers.

Farmers are adopting data-gathering technologies on their own, and their data can be used in collaboration with researchers’ work, she says. “Some farmers are using GoPro cameras and drones to get a whole view of their field. But color images from GoPro can only offer limited information. A hyperspectral camera sees beyond human vision. Hyperspectral imaging is for research use only because of its high cost. The goal is to select the wavebands that are the most helpful and put them on a multispectral camera. A low-cost solution is the key in populating the advanced technology to farmers.”

Someday she’d like to apply that approach to using advanced technologies in the large rice and cotton fields of northeastern China, where the need and potential applications are great, she says. “I love being outside and working in agriculture. People say it’s fancy technology, but we can use it to feed more people.”

-Becky Beyers