Elevating AI for Tech-Driven Turfgrass

Brynna Bruxellas poses with other student poster winners at an AI in Agriculture conference.

Student Spotlight: Brynna Bruxellas

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is home to over 350 students pursuing two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees in agricultural and environmental sciences. 

Our mission is to connect them with the opportunities and careers that solve growing challenges.

Brynna Bruxellas is a first-year master’s student studying drone technology in agriculture.

Hi Brynna, where are you from?

I’m from Richardson County in southeast Nebraska.

For my bachelor’s degree, I majored in geography and geospatial technology at Concordia University. I was originally a computer science major but took geography as an elective. I had a really engaging professor who highlighted all of the technological uses and careers in the field.

What was your journey to NC State?

I came to NC State for a summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in soil science. I was really interested in drones in agriculture. 

In that 10-week program, I made good friends with some other REU students from all over the country. I studied the influence of topography and soil moisture on soil nitrogen. The experience was everything I wanted. I got to fly multiple drones in the field, earned my drone pilot’s license, learned GIS applications and saw exactly how and why this technology is valuable. It helped set up my senior capstone project.

Brynna Bruxellas flies a drone at a turfgrass field
Brynna pilots a drone at an NC State turfgrass research field.

What was your senior project about?

It was called The Path to No Roads. I used QGIS to identify the most remote spot (furthest from any road) in the contiguous U.S. I had gained the ability to use software and could really dive deep into learning the research process.

So, where is the most remote spot in the U.S.?

I published my research in a YouTube video. You can watch it there. [Smiling]

Did you visit NC State for the REU program and decide to apply as a graduate student?

I really wasn’t planning on graduate school. I thought I’d graduate with a bachelor’s degree and start working in land surveying.  

But, REU opened my eyes to what graduate school might entail. I liked NC State’s campus and professors so I warmed to the idea. My REU (and now graduate) advisor, Rob Austin, mentored me through the application process. 

What originally interested you about computer programming?

My uncle is a computer programmer, and I liked the idea of being able to hack something. But I realized there’s a lot of 9-5 in the office. I want to use my skills in fieldwork. 

Drone work lets me do both. I’ve already learned a lot of software: ArcGIS and Python at Concordia, metashape, R Studio, and web mapping at NC State, and QGIS on my own.

What does your graduate research entail?

I’m studying the use of drone imagery to rate turfgrass quality for breeders and disease identification. When breeders evaluate new turfgrass lines, they have to visually assess and score each turf plot, which can be time-consuming and subjective.   

I’m flying drones over turf plots on the days they rate turf to hopefully correlate imagery with the breeders’ ground truthing. Then, we can create machine learning and deep learning models that rate turf based on data obtained using the drone. This allows researchers to spend less time walking plots and more time analyzing results with less bias.

Brynna Bruxellas prepares a drone for flight at an NC State turfgrass field lab.
Brynna Bruxellas prepares a drone for flight at an NC State turfgrass field lab.

Did you know you wanted to work in turfgrass?

No, I originally was thinking about forages. But turfgrass was where the opportunity was.  I’ve found the turfgrass industry to be much bigger than I imagined. There are so many turfgrass species and uses. It’s a really vibrant industry that is really quite broad. 

Brynna Bruxellas pushes a spreader at an NC State turfgrass event.
Brynna demonstrates fertilizer application rates at an NC State turfgrass short course event.

You’re involved in other drone projects, too, right?

In addition to my thesis research, NC State hired me as the main pilot for a project called the “Drone Pilot Project.” Every week, I fly non-targeted flights over research fields at several research stations to obtain general data about that location that will be available to researchers to download from the cloud in the future. 

We are testing how feasible it is to fly research fields regularly – like satellites produce data – but at higher resolution from drones. Hopefully the data will be useful to those field researchers to analyze and support their inquiries retroactively.

What opportunities have you had to share your research?

I’ve attended several conferences, most recently the AI in Agriculture conference hosted at Texas A&M University. I thought I was just going to present a poster, but it turned out to be a competition with anonymous judges. I didn’t even know I was entered, so I was floored at the meeting when they called my name as one of three winners. 

That conference was a great opportunity to see how connected the turf industry is and how they work together.

Brynna Bruxellas poses with her research poster
Brynna poses with her award-winning research poster.

Rumor has it that you were being recruited pretty hard.

[Laughing] Well, maybe. I did get a great opportunity to meet people at Texas A&M and see their turfgrass facility.

Does this mean a Ph.D. is in your future?

I don’t know. Rob Austin has been great at fueling different opportunities and encouraging me to keep an open mind. 

Now, my focus is on writing my master’s thesis and deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D.

What is your career goal?

Ultimately, I want to work outdoors with drones and maybe even own my own business—maybe dealing with golf course management, conservation, or land surveying. I definitely want to return to Nebraska someday.

Brynna Bruxellas practices putting at a Grads to Golf event at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course
Brynna Bruxellas practices putting at a Grads to Golf event at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course

What other opportunities have you had at NC State?

I was lucky to get involved with the LPGA’s Grads to Golf program sponsored by John Deere. I’ve always wanted to play golf because so much business is done on the course, but I didn’t know how to get started. 

This program teaches female graduate students the skills and etiquette of golf. There were also “lunch and learn” sessions on leadership and empowerment. On the last day, we played a 9-hole round at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course. I highly recommend the program to anyone interested!

What’s your advice to a new student at NC State?

Pursue what interests you and follow your opportunities, and all the timing will work out. Oh, and everyone should take a computer programming class.

Picture yourself in crop and soil sciences. 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to a career of impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about our student degree pathways, including deep dives into our agronomy, soil science and turfgrass programs. Then, join us for a guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with high-performing careers is just part of how we are growing the future.

A drone sits on a landing pad at the NC State Turfgrass Field Lab