On the Cutting Edge

Steve Li works directly with farmers to revolutionize modern agriculture

The world of drones is constantly evolving. With multiple brands, models, software programs and applications on the market, it’s a challenge to remain on the cutting edge of this ever-changing technology. This is where Dr. Steve Li, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System weed scientist, is leading the way in the agricultural sector. Supported by his research through Auburn University and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, Li’s work with drones is a trusted source of information for Alabama farmers.

Dr. Steve Li

Dr. Steve Li

A Weed Scientist Turned Drone Enthusiast

Li began his career in agriculture after receiving a bachelor’s degree from China Agricultural University. He then went on to receive a Master of Science in agronomy and crop science from Auburn and a doctorate in weed science at the University of Georgia. Li later returned to Auburn as an Alabama Extension specialist and associate professor in the College of Agriculture. In this role, he helps farmers across the state and country implement better weed management practices.

Farmers rely heavily on land-grant institutions to provide solutions to their daily challenges, including feeding a United States population that has increased by more than 60% in the last half-century. With this challenge comes the necessary research to develop better systems — saving money, time and resources.

To meet this need, Li began his focus on drone use in field crops in early 2020. Today, it is a venture that he continues to pursue with a varied group of projects. Now, Li serves as one of the leading experts in unmanned aircraft system (UAS) applications for agriculture practices.

“Three years ago, we began working with drones and precision technologies,” Li said. “Now, we are heavily focused on delivering crop protection chemicals — including herbicide, fungicides and insecticides — as well as other chemicals farmers typically use on the farm with these new technologies.”

Dr. Steve Li

A Revolutionary Industry

Li said drones are a revolutionary way to reduce input costs and increase farm profitability. By using UAS technology, farmers and land managers can apply products, plant seeds and survey fields, all while reducing overspray, cutting back water usage and disturbing virtually zero soil.

“Drones have a complementary fit — particularly in areas like the Southeast, where growers have smaller, irregular-shaped fields and frequent, prolonged wet periods or areas without crop duster service,” Li said.

The drone industry moves rapidly, and UAS technology often outpaces the opportunities for training and demonstration. Staying on the leading edge of technology allows Alabama Extension to conduct crucial training for stakeholders and improve the livelihood of growers in the state.

It Takes a Village

To continue supporting Alabama farmers and land managers, Alabama Extension has forged relationships with several educational partners and private organizations. One is Agri Spray Drones, a Missouri-based drone supplier and educator that values empowering rural America.

Taylor Moreland, owner of Agri Spray Drones, first met Li at a training event in the Southeast. After many conversations about the drone industry, Moreland and his company decided to collaborate with Li and Alabama Extension.

“After being introduced to Steve Li, we quickly realized that he was more obsessed with drones than we were,” Moreland said. “All of us said, ‘Holy cow, we have to work more with this guy.’”

Moreland said it is essential for his company to create and provide information about proper drone applications. Scientific research must be the backbone of UAS adoption for farmers and consumers to regard the information.

In 2022, Agri Spray Drones supported Li’s research and expertise by donating a state-of-the-art DJI Agras T40 spray drone, the flagship model currently offered by DJI. With this donation, Alabama Extension at Auburn University was the first land-grant institution in the U.S. to begin agriculture research using the new T40 model.

“Our goals aligned well with each other,” Li said. “We want people to be able to utilize these new tools to create a better living. We are now able to conduct more on-farm trials and spray more efficiently. At the same time, we can generate data from several models in multiple crops, which expedites field studies and technology promotion.”

Dr. Steve Li

It’s All About the Farmer

Drew Wendland operates a generational farm in Autauga County, which rotates corn, cotton, soybeans and sesame. He knows firsthand what it takes to be a farmer and the responsibility that it brings. Wendland also understands the importance of modern agricultural technology and the benefits it provides. This is why the Wendland family opened their property to Li’s research.

“Dr. Li’s research provides a relevant and economical approach to meet today’s challenges in production agriculture,” Wendland said. “His work has always provided field-tested methods for controlling tough weeds in modern row-crop systems. More recently, his research on drones has offered great insight on where UAS could fit into production systems. It’s nice to work with an Extension researcher who will come to our farm and help us learn if a new technology is a good fit.”

Li’s passion for helping people is not unnoticed by Alabama’s agricultural leaders. Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell recently presented Li with the 2023 Rittenour Award for Production Agriculture and Forestry Research. To reinforce the UAS interest among farming communities, Federation meetings have included one item on the agenda consistently: spray drone demonstrations by Li.

“Our farmers need professionals like Dr. Li on their side,” Parnell said. “They have implemented new technology, techniques and field days that have helped improve numerous farmers’ bottom lines.”

Li’s research and outreach efforts include approximately 150 field trials, 21 live demonstrations and regular social media posts during the last two years. He reaches more than 154,250 people across 25 countries and six continents with this online educational content.

A Flight Plan for the Future

Thanks to his one-of-a-kind research and real-time updates on results and findings, Li has helped farmers across commodities harness innovative technology for crop protection. Today, Li continues to serve as a go-to source for the latest agriculture research. He said his passion for helping others serves as the driving factor for his work.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities for us as a land-grant institution and Extension system,” Li said. “There’re more trials, research and educational efforts that we need to generate to support operators and farmers. Hopefully, what we do will make a positive impact on people’s lives.”