Dogs and Drones: New Projects in Puglia Emphasize Early Detection Against Xylella

Using thermal sensing and the powerful noses of dogs, authorities in Puglia ramp up efforts to detect the latest outbreaks of Xylella fastidiosa before symptoms occur.

By Francesca Gorini
Dec. 17, 2021 11:42 UTC

The fight against Xylella fas­tidiosa requires the devel­op­ment of ever more pre­cise and reli­able pre­ven­tion and early diag­no­sis sys­tems.

From drones to detec­tion dogs, Italy is devel­op­ing new weapons to con­tain and erad­i­cate the deadly olive tree pathogen.

The goal of the Redox project is to develop a method­ol­ogy applic­a­ble to large areas to iden­tify olive trees that are infected with Xylella but do not yet show evi­dent symp­toms.- Vincenzo Barbieri, chief mar­ket­ing offi­cer, Planetek

To date, the bac­te­ria has infected 21 mil­lion olive trees in Puglia and is dan­ger­ously advanc­ing in other regions.

Authorities believe the abil­ity to iden­tify infected plants early rep­re­sents a crit­i­cal strate­gic ele­ment and an essen­tial con­di­tion to effec­tively coun­ter­act its advance and pre­vent the bacterium’s arrival in pre­vi­ously unaf­flicted areas.

See Also:An Estimated 33,000 Jobs Lost to Xylella Fastidiosa in Puglia

Through the Redox (Remote Early Detection of Xylella) project, drones are used to iden­tify new Xylella fas­tidiosa out­breaks at the early stages of devel­op­ment, improv­ing the effec­tive­ness of con­tain­ment mea­sures and reduc­ing the time and costs asso­ci­ated with detec­tion, mon­i­tor­ing and sam­pling of plants.

Funded by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, author­i­ties deploy uncrewed air­craft equipped with ther­mal sen­sors to mon­i­tor extended areas accu­rately.

The goal of the Redox project is to develop a method­ol­ogy applic­a­ble to large areas to iden­tify olive trees that are infected with Xylella but do not yet show evi­dent symp­toms,” said Vincenzo Barbieri, the chief mar­ket­ing offi­cer of Planetek, which pro­vides aer­ial and drone data pro­cess­ing for the project.

According to researchers, a tree affected by Xyella fas­tidiosa can be detected even before the char­ac­ter­is­tic des­ic­ca­tion of its leaves through almost imper­cep­ti­ble phys­i­o­log­i­cal alter­ations, such as color.

The hyper­spec­tral sen­sors mounted on the drones are expected to reveal these slight changes, allow­ing for an early diag­no­sis and poten­tially stop­ping the out­break before it spreads.

Through these tech­niques, we try to limit the infec­tion as much as pos­si­ble, at least until genetic research will pro­vide a new gen­er­a­tion of plants resis­tant to the bac­terium, able to replace the tra­di­tional ones,” Barbieri said.

The first tri­als of the project are under­way in Monopoli, in the province of Bari. A long-endurance drone pro­vided by the Italian Aerospace Technology District was equipped with sen­sors and a radio­met­ric ther­mal cam­era to acquire remote sens­ing data. The data may then be com­pared with sam­ple data obtained from other areas.

Besides the test­ing in Monopoli, two other air flights are already planned in April and August 2022 within the Italian national action plan against the bac­terium.

Also, in Puglia, the first Xylella detec­tion dog task force was offi­cially intro­duced to detect the bac­terium through their extremely sen­si­tive sense of smell.


Jack Russell Terrier

The unit com­prises six dogs: two Jack Russells, a Belgian Shepherd, a blood­hound, a Labrador retriever and a springer spaniel. The dogs will be used at nurs­eries and areas where plants are imported – ports and air­ports – to iden­tify infected plants before the appear­ance of rec­og­niz­able symp­toms.

The task force started in June 2021 with dogs that were already expert detec­tors.

The train­ing was very intense: it took months to sub­mit to the dogs’ atten­tion hun­dreds of sam­ples of plant odors to have an idea as pre­cise as pos­si­ble of the smell of the infected plants,” dog trainer Serena Donnini said.

Dogs were selected based on their par­tic­u­lar apti­tude to olfac­tion research: by now, there are eight Xylella detec­tion dog units ready to take action,” she added.

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