Sensors & Remote Sensing in Agriculture with Dr. Joaquin Casanova

Drone in flight via two men with remote control.

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For questions or comments, contact Joaquin via email at

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Joaquin Casanova. Joaquin received his master’s in agricultural engineering and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Florida. His research history includes crop and micro meteorological modeling, remote sensing, design, modeling, and testing of electromagnetic sensors and machine learning approaches to interpreting sensor data. In addition, he has taught courses in electromagnetics, antenna design and radiofrequency systems at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Hello, Joaquin.

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having me.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. Glad to have you on and to introduce you to our listeners. You just joined the USDA-ARS Northwest, Sustainable Agro Ecosystems Research Group (NSAER), along with three other new scientists, several of whom either have been or will be on the show at some point. What what will your role be in this team?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Yeah, so I’m a research agricultural engineer, and my work with NSAER is going to be focusing on remote and proximal sensing and that means anything from satellite data to drones to sensors placed in the soil. So my specific task here is to develop new sensors and techniques for those sensors for the unique landscape of the Pacific Northwest and we’re trying to help growers with specific problems they might have and also answer some research questions about fundamental processes in the soil and in the air. So like erosion, soil acidification, weeds, changes in soil organic matter, just how we can quantify these things better so that we can manage them better.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Those– that’s an area that has a lot of interest these days. The technology is really coming along, so it’ll be really interesting to see what you come up with. What what can you tell us about your work before you came to Pullman?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Well, like you said, I went to the University of Florida. My master’s work I was looking at microwave remote sensing for determining soil moisture. So we were looking at, specifically we were looking at cotton and sweet corn, and we were developing models that we could use to help interpret satellite data so that we could determine the soil moisture level and then use that to schedule the irrigation. Then in my my Ph.D. work was very different. I, I worked for some time on wireless power transfer. So this sort of is more commonplace now. At the time that was pretty new, but just, you know, sort of the pads you sit down electronics on and it charges it up Then afterwards, I got back into agriculture. I was working for the USDA as a postdoc and I was developing sensors for measuring soil moisture and using that data to schedule irrigation for wheat, mainly, we also looked at sorghum and cotton and we were also looking at some computer vision techniques to like having cameras mounted on the irrigation system that could monitor for things like wheat streak mosaic virus and then help use to schedule irrigation. And that was that was pretty interesting work, but it was a temporary position, it was a postdoc, so it had to come to an end. And so afterwards, I couldn’t find any jobs with the USDA. So I went back to UF and I started working there first in the chemistry department, developing new equipment for the chemistry department. I did that for a time, and then I got back into electrical engineering where I worked on never a different sensor projects, mostly for the Defense Department. So a lot of it I could not publish on, but different types of sensors for like measuring signals from the human brain and things like that. And then the past few years, I was, you know, like a lot of people, I was working from home as an engineering consultant, still doing sort of defense work and work for space applications. And, you know, I think like a lot of people the pandemic sort of made me rethink what I was doing. And I realized I hadn’t been happy with my work since I was working in agriculture. So I started looking for jobs with USDA and it turns out it was a good time. A lot of openings in the past year. And so I was fortunate enough to get a job here in Pullman and so that’s where I’m at now.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And when did you arrive in Pullman?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Well, I officially started in August. But I worked from Florida for a month while I was moving, and I officially moved here mid-September.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So what are some of the problems you see PNW growers facing that remote sensing may be able to help with?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Well, yeah. So part of this initial onboarding for all the new scientists, like you said before, we have three other new scientists that were all hired at the same time. And so our first few months has just been every week we meet with a different stakeholder and we talk with them about different problems that they’re facing. And so this can be different farmers growing different things we’ve talked to and we’ve also talked to different researchers or conservation specialists, people with different stakes in in this landscape. And so some of the problems that we’ve heard repeatedly are from the grower side: weeds, weeds is a huge thing. And trying to minimize the amount of herbicide you have to apply. And so one thing I plan to work on is using drones to help identify where weeds are and use that to do some more targeted spraying in the field. Another thing that has come up repeatedly is just the variation of yield and protein content of wheat over a field and being able to better guide your prescription for fertilization over the field. So I’m looking at some remote sensing techniques that would measure nitrogen content so you could better judge how much to fertilize in different parts of the field and also when you should be harvesting. Because we know that the protein content of the grain not only depends on how much nitrogen you’re applying, but also on how soon after a thesis that you’re harvesting. And then there’s other issues that we’ve heard repeatedly about knowing — getting yield estimates with some uncertainty bounds. So I’m going to work with some of my colleagues who you’ll talk to, Melissa LeTorneau, with crop models and using some of the remote sensing data to help drive those and get better estimates of yield prediction and uncertainty on that yield based on, you know, changing climate factors or variation in the landscape. And some of the other issues we’ve come across, talking to people are more fundamental or more conservation issues. So some of those issues would be erosion, looking at how we can better manage erosion, specifically tillage erosion, that is not very well accounted for in a lot of the quantification of erosion When it comes to, like, modeling and estimates. So, you know, different types of tillage are going to lead to a certain amount of tillage erosion, even the direction in the landscape that you till is going to affect how much erosion you’re having. So we’d like to better quantify that. And you can do that with, for instance, LIDAR or satellite imagery. And then we’re interested in better quantifying some of that carbon and nitrogen flows in the landscape. So you know, it could be that you have a lot of nitrogen loss in certain low lying areas of the field, but you’re really not quantifying that right now. You could be getting a lot of nitrogen emissions from the soil that are leading to increased global warming. And so we need to be able to better understand why and where that is happening. And then another thing is soil acidification, which is just becoming a huge problem here. And so we need ways to better quantify that and help address that problem. And then a final thing that I think you talked to Garrett about a little bit. Garett Heineck, another one of my colleagues here is on farm research and that, you know, running field experiments, but they’re on a farmer’s property basically so you’re maybe not able to do all the sampling you need to do that you would be able to do on like a research farm. So a logical choice there is to use remote sensing data or data from a drone. And so I’m hopefully going to be helping out Garett with some of his on-farm research using remote sensing data and drone data.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So some of these sensors are really quite interesting, but sensors in general have been around for a while Are there any new avenues to pursue along those lines?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Yeah. I, you know, the remote sensing journals, even for agriculture, they go way back. And a lot of the stuff is… the same topics keep coming up over and over again. But I do have some newer ideas. I think that weed identification using some machine learning approaches, that is still a pretty new area. Same with quantifying erosion using imagery, that actually it’s still pretty new. There’s still a lot of problems with the way it’s being done. Another area that is still pretty new is, and in fact, I haven’t really seen it done, is measuring the carbon and nitrogen pools under the soil. So people do this at the surface level or in the lab. But if you could have a type of sensor that what would work in the soil to measure the profile of organic carbon real time, that would certainly help. Or a sensor that would be in the soil that would measure nitrogen fluxes real time. You know, that sort of thing doesn’t really exist right now. So I would like to be able to work on developing something like that. And then I have some other ideas, like I’d like to use radar on a drone to help monitor soil moisture that would be an interesting approach. I have not seen that done. Well, it’s been done, but in very limited settings on big aircraft. But to make something more cheap and practical for farmers to use. And so, yeah, I think really the move we need to make now with sensors and remote sensing in agriculture is to make things a little more accessible and practical for farmers to use to this stage. A lot of it is still it’s been around for a while, but it’s still a kind of a big, expensive black box, and it hasn’t seen much uptake.

Drew Lyon: And it’s — you hear about a lot of interesting things you can do, but I can’t figure out how to use any of that stuff. [ laughter ]

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Right. We want to have a product at the end of this that somebody could actually just download it or buy it inexpensively and use it to help improve their productivity.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, that the idea of weeds, being a weed scientist, I’m quite interested in and that ability, if we had a better sense of what weeds we had and where they were in the field, and could track that over time, I think growers could learn a lot about how to manage those different weed issues. I’ll be following that.

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: How can our listeners follow what you’re doing here? Is there someplace they can go to learn? I know you’re fairly new, so maybe you don’t have a website set up yet, but is that something you have plans for?

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Well, our, our there’s our research group’s website, which is you can look it up online. It’s in Northwest Sustainable Agro Ecosystems Research Unit with the USDA. You know, yeah, we just had a bunch of new hires, so it may not even be totally up to date, but that will give you an idea about some of the past work that’s gone on here. If you’re interested in getting in touch with me, my email’s I know my name might be a little bit of a spelling challenge, so it might be in the show notes. If you’re interested in some of my past papers, you can look me up on Google Scholar is pretty reliable and I’m usually around Johnson Hall. I have a big yellow backpack so if you just want to like stop me and ask me a question that works too.

Drew Lyon: All right. Well, I can thank you for joining us today and introducing yourself to our listeners will be watching what you’re doing.

Dr. Joaquin Casanova: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.

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