High-tech drones are being used to survey maize crops in the State’s north for the new invasive pest, fall armyworm, to improve monitoring and provide an early warning detection tool for growers.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) has joined with the Ord River District Co-operative (ORDCO) to survey six maize crops in the Ord River Irrigation Area during the growing season between May and September.

Fall armyworm was first detected in Kununurra in March 2020 and has since become established in Broome, Carnarvon and Gingin.

The voracious pest can cause significant production losses to grass crops, such as maize, sweet corn and sorghum and is known to feed on more than 350 plant species, including other grain, fodder, fruit and vegetable crops.

The first of four drone flights has been completed, while a second will occur mid-June backed up by pre and post-flight ground monitoring to verify the results.

DPIRD senior research scientist Helen Spafford is leading the project and said the images and data from the drones would provide scientists and growers with a better understanding of how fall armyworm behaved in northern conditions.

“The program is surveying six paddocks in the stage one and two and Packsaddle areas to assess the pest’s spread over time,” Dr Spafford said.

“The first flight in late May found that the drones and the software could pick up the characteristic feeding damage of young fall armyworm in young maize crops, which suggests that we can find these infestations early across large areas.

“We are interested in the data captured by the drones and whether it reveals any patterns in the relationship between fall armyworm colonisation and plant health in the field, which could aid management and control measures.

“The project is also using the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI, data collected from satellites to assess plant health in each paddock.”

The drones, which are flown 15 metres above the crop, capture high resolution images that are then run through processing algorithms to identify insect damage to leaves.

Dr Spafford said the drones could be useful to identify fall armyworm infestations early in the crop to aid control responses.

“The technology may be very useful to identify fall armyworm hot spots so growers and agronomists can make informed decisions about control measures before numbers build up and spread,” she said.

“This project provides a unique opportunity to prove up the use of drone technology to monitor invasive species, which could also be used for other pests, weeds and diseases.”

ORDCO senior agronomist Penny Goldsmith said the co-operative was pleased to be involved with the drone monitoring project, which she said could pave the way to improved crop protection and productivity.

“Drones could prove to be a useful addition to our control armoury to refine management strategies and protect crops more effectively, reduce control costs and adapt farming systems to optimise yields and profitability,” she said.

Treatments are available to control fall armyworm but they have limited effectiveness on some stages of larvae and high potential for resistance.

For more information about fall armyworm identification, management and surveillance visit the DPIRD website or view the department’s latest PestFax newsletter or the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s Fall armyworm portal.

Producers, agronomists and homeowners are reminded to report suspected armyworm damage to DPIRD’s Pest and Disease Information Service on 9368 3080, email padis@dpird.wa.gov.au or use the MyPestGuide Reporter app.

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