Cockrell student uses drones to change agriculture, landscaping

Evan Hearn

As drone technology becomes more accessible, UT students and staff are using the unmanned aircraft to change the nature of agriculture and landscaping.

Marwan Madi, an electrical and computer engineering junior, has been utilizing drones in two simultaneous projects: one to improve the efficiency of University landscaping and the other to aid Texas farmers. Both initiatives make use of the drones’ ability to quickly cover large areas and capture light invisible to the human eye.

“During the flight, the drone is taking a bunch of pictures,” Madi said. “A sensor compares the ratio of near-infrared to visible light, and based on that ratio, you can see how stressed the plant is, which may correlate directly to how much water it needs.”

Markus Hogue, UT irrigation and water conservation coordinator, spent more than half a decade improving the University’s irrigation system. His work on the publicly accessible “Irrigation Dashboard,” which provides information on water usage at the University, contributed to UT winning the 2017 Texas Environmental Excellence Award.


Over the past year, Hogue and Madi have performed test flights over the turf surrounding the Thompson Conference Center and the LBJ Presidential Library, where 20 percent of the University’s water is used, said Hogue.

“The dashboard pulls information out of our irrigation system,” Hogue said. “Our goal is to take the drones’ images, overlay the irrigation data and see where we can water less. Then we’ll extrapolate the data to the rest of the campus.”

The project’s yearlong implementation phase will begin later this month, said Hogue and Madi. Also beginning later this month, Madi hopes to help Texas farmers in El Campo, Texas, save money and increase yields with his company, Maverick Labs. Jimmy Roppolo, general manager of United Agricultural Cooperative, is one such farmer. 

Roppolo said while agricultural drone usage is common in the Midwest, it hasn’t found solid ground in Texas. But he said he is confident in the technology’s possibilities.

“They can fly two or three or four hundred acres in fifteen or twenty minutes,” Roppolo said. “We’ll be able to identify and monitor problems very quickly.”

Madi, meanwhile, said he is eager to see how the year goes. 

“These guys need all the help they can get, and hopefully, we can do that for them,” Madi said. “I’m very excited.”