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News 09.03.2017

Agricultural robot may be “game changer” for crop growers, breeders

A semiautonomous robot may soon be roaming agricultural fields gathering and transmitting real-­time data about the growth and development of crops, information that crop breeders – and eventually farmers – can use to identify the genetic traits in plants likely to produce the greatest yields.

Agricultural robot may be "game changer" for crop growers, breeders
A robot under development at the University of Illinois automates the labor-intensive process of crop phenotyping, enabling scientists to scan crops and match genetic data with the highest-yielding plants. Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary, right, is working on the $3.1 million project, along with postdoctoral researcher Erkan Kayacan. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

A semiautonomous robot may soon be roaming agricultural fields gathering and transmitting real-time data about the growth and development of crops, information that crop breeders – and eventually farmers – can use to identify the genetic traits in plants likely to produce the greatest yields.

A team of scientists from the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois is developing the robot in partnership with researchers from Cornell University and Signetron Inc.

Inspired by the autonomous rovers used to search collapsed buildings and other dangerous environments, the agricultural robot is propelled on continuous tracks, or miniature tank treads, which enable it to navigate through dry or muddy fields. Researchers guide it using GPS and a laptop computer.

Traveling between the crop rows, the robot uses hyperspectral, high-definition and thermal cameras, weather monitors and pulsed laser scanners to capture phenotypic information – such as the stem diameter, height and leaf area of each plant – and assess environmental conditions, such as the temperature and moisture content of the soil.

The robot stores the data in its onboard computer and transmits it in real time to the grower’s computer. Scientists use the data to create a 3-D reconstruction of each plant, develop predictive models for the plant’s growth and development, and estimate the biomass yield for each plant and the entire plot.

“Immediate access to the data is very important for crop breeders in the U.S.,” said U. of I. agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary. “It’s very important for them to see and visualize the data. If the data are available to the breeder quickly, then they can make actionable decisions” that enhance production.

Although the researchers currently are using the robot to assess fields of energy sorghum, a crop used in biofuel production, they say the robot would perform equally well with other tall-growing row crops such as corn and wheat, and possibly with soybeans before the plant canopy closes.

The robot is a “game changer” for both crop scientists and farmers, automating the labor-intensive phenotyping processes of farming and crop development, said Stephen P. Long, the director of the project.

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