It is one of the world’s most dangerous plant pathogens and the University of Melbourne’s Professor Pablo Zarco-Tejada is on a mission to stop it. The fast-spreading and aggressive Xylella fastidiosa bacterium can infect and destroy around 350 different plant species - from olive groves, grapevines and almond trees to citrus trees, elms and oaks.

Professor Pablo Zarco-Tejada posing with a plane
Professor Pablo Zarco-Tejada, whose research has enabled detection of plant diseases form the air

It has been a threat in the Americas for decades and more recently has spread to Europe and Asia. But precision agriculture is stepping in to wage war against this bacterium. A drone equipped with a hyperspectral camera can be flown over potentially infected areas and swiftly detect tell-tale signs of infection, such as slight colour changes and damage to the system that trees and plants use to take water to their leaves.

Precision agriculture is part of the Bachelor of Agriculture studies at the University of Melbourne, led by Professor Zarco-Tejada. The course develops knowledge and skills that can boost efficiency and sustainability in areas of agriculture including broadacre cropping, horticulture and dairy farming.

“At the University, we have established an aircraft facility with innovative technology and fast processing methods to enable interested growers to access advanced precision agriculture methods. We can fly a large field and, in less than 24 hours, we can provide results online to the farmers,” he says.

“In Europe, we’ve used aircraft with innovative thermals and hyperspectral cameras to help farmers make decisions about water stress and which plots need to be irrigated.”

With the world’s population set to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, the demand for clean, safe food will rise and a changing climate and declining environmental health mean agriculture must become more sustainable and efficient. Precision agriculture is an important part of this puzzle.

In 2019, the University has opened new opportunities for students to explore how cutting edge technologies can be applied to agriculture in a new third-year subject, Applications in Precision Agriculture, coordinated by Dr Alexis Pang.

Carissa Bailey, 22, a Bachelor of Agriculture student at the University’s Dookie campus, is interested in how drone technology can be used to help farms work harder and better.

“Precision agriculture has massive potential to improve current farming practices,” she says.

“It will allow farmers to produce more from less and to hopefully have more consistent yields, which is increasingly challenging due to climate change and seasonal variations. This technology has the potential to improve management and mitigate the detrimental impacts of climate change.

“Precision agriculture will benefit everyone in the agricultural industry in the future through better practices and management - and that is really exciting.”