Engineers and Botanists Team Up to Fight World Hunger
Staff posted on March 29, 2017 |

Developing drought tolerant corn that makes efficient use of available water will be vital to sustain the estimated 9 billion global population by 2050. As part of a multidisciplinary team, University of Missouri (Mizzou) engineers on have developed a robotic system that is changing the way scientists study crops and plant composition.

Gui DeSouza, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, along with colleagues and students in his Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory partnered with researchers in Mizzou’s college of agriculture, food and natural resources and the Danforth Plant Science Center to study the effects of climate change on crops in Missouri. Using principles developed in the ViGIR lab, DeSouza is changing the way agriculturists collect data in the field.

"I've been working with CAFNR, assisting them in experiments where we helped to create 3D images of root growth in the laboratory," DeSouza said. "Now, we're creating robotics to assist in creating those images out in the field."

The engineering and plant science research team developed a combination, two-pronged approach using a mobile sensing tower and a robot vehicle equipped with three levels of sensors.

The tower inspects a 60-foot radius of a given field to identify areas affected by environmental stresses, while the vehicle collects data on individual plants. The sensors have the ability to measure various heights of the corn plant in order to reconstruct a 3D image.

"Measurements taken from the tower alert us if any of the plants are under stress, such as heat or drought," DeSouza said. "The tower then signals the mobile robot, which we call the Vinobot, to go to a particular area of the field and perform data collection on the individual plants.”

To develop 3-D images of corn plants in the field, DeSouza's team developed a combination approach of a mobile sensor tower (in background) and an autonomous robot vehicle equipped with three levels of sensors and an additional robotic arm. (Image courtesy of Gui DeSouza.)
To develop 3-D images of corn plants in the field, DeSouza's team developed a combination approach of a mobile sensor tower (in background) and an autonomous robot vehicle equipped with three levels of sensors and an additional robotic arm. (Image courtesy of Gui DeSouza.)
“The Vinobot has three sets of sensors and a robotic arm to collect temperature, humidity and light intensity at three different heights on the corn plant,” DeSouza continued. “This is called plant phenotyping, which assesses growth, development, yield and items such as tolerance and resistance to environmental stressors by correlating these to physiology and shape of the plants."

While the tower covers only a relatively small area, it can easily be moved to cover an entire field. This cost-effective measure means it is less expensive to have more towers, stationed at various points in the field, operating simultaneously.

"The towers not only are inexpensive, they also are available throughout the day and night and can generate more data than any aerial vehicle could," DeSouza said.

The team's study, "Vinobot and Vinoculer: Two robotic platforms for high-throughput field phenotyping," has been published in the journal Sensors.

For another example of how engineers are improving agriculture, read about  Re-Engineering Irrigation.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia

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