LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A team of researchers is developing a way to save nursery producers across the globe the hassle of manually counting millions of plants over vast acres of land, and the solution is in the sky.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Oregon State University and the University of Florida are tackling the issue with a remote-control helicopter equipped with a digital camera and software that not only can count the plants, but also sort them by size and grade.

"As with any business, having an accurate and real-time inventory is critical," said Jim Robbins, extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. "The key is that we could provide them with a more accurate, cost effective way to collect inventory data."

Robbins said 2011 will be an important year for the project.

"This is the first year of starting to work out the critical details of using this multi-rotor aircraft to take inventory, and we are just now starting to attract research dollars," he said. "We have a lot of work to do, but it looks as though this is a very promising avenue of research."

Robbins said the idea originated in 2008 when he was visiting a nursery producer in Oregon who casually mentioned the challenges and limitations of current inventory methods. Robbins said traditionally, inventory is done by manual counts in the field, and that particular nursery in Oregon has around 15 to 20 million trees.

"It's not humanly possible for them to use human beings to count all of these plants, so what they do is count a subsample and use that to estimate the total crop," he said. "Our goal is to give them a cost-effective way to obtain real-time information that can far exceed what a human can do."

The multi-rotor helicopter consists of a platform 3 feet in diameter attached to four to eight separate propeller blades and supports an off-the-shelf digital camera. The entire device weighs about two pounds and is expected to range in cost from $3,000 to $5,000.

Dharmendra Saraswat, extension engineer for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said the team wanted to use products that could be bought off the shelf and were not overly expensive.

In September, the research team hosted a demonstration in Oregon for top leaders in the nursery industry. Robbins said researchers are still in the early stages of the design process, but they have already received ample interest from the leading nursery producers in the country.

The team also has received funding from the Oregon Association of Nurseries, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the J. Frank Schmidt Family Charitable Foundation.

Gary McAninch, nursery and Christmas tree program manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said this project was one of nine to receive funding from the agency in January, and that members of the industry are excited to see it in action.

"This was a very highly ranked project," McAninch said. "It's fairly labor intensive to do inventory counts on your plants. We thought this project would be very helpful to the nursery industry."

The goal is to have the helicopter generate real-time aerial images that are sent to a computer being monitored on the ground. Researchers are currently working on image recognition software that will identify certain plant and tree types.

Robbins said they also plan to further adapt the software to include capabilities to measure more specific things like plant size, grade and health.

"The challenge with the nursery or greenhouse industry is that we are dealing with a living product," he said. "We not only need an accurate count but information on the quality of the product."

Saraswat said he hopes to make significant progress by the end of the year, adding that future buyers will need to undergo training to operate the device.