A robotics project in Missouri, USA is looking to tackle world hunger by using autonomous vehicles to collect data that will aid the development of drought-resistant crops.
For every story on how robots threaten the future of humanity, there’s scope for another that shows how they will save us. The fact is, like any technology, the humanitarian benefits and value of robotics to future generations will stem from our choices around their application and the regulations that govern them.
For now though, we can take heart in research at the Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory, undertaken in partnership with the University of Missouri in the US and other scientific bodies.
Population increases, climate change, the loss of arable land, pests and disease all play their part in undermining the world’s food supply. The internet of things (IoT) is rising to the occasion and striving to meet global demand but the effect of drought on many regions of the world remains potentially devastating.
Laying the groundwork for drought-resistant crops
What started as a collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, creating 3D images of root growth in the laboratory, has flourished into the development of robotics that is helping to create similar images of corn shoots out in the field.
This new robotic architecture for plant phenotyping (an organism’s observable physical or biochemical characteristics) consists of two platforms – an autonomous ground vehicle, known as Vinobot, and a mobile observation tower, or Vinoculer.
As the ground vehicle navigates crop rows, collecting data from individual plants, the tower oversees a 60ft radius of the surrounding field, identifying specific plants for the Vinobot to inspect.
The Vinobot, meanwhile, has multiple sensors and a robotic arm to collect temperature, humidity and light intensity at three different heights on the corn plant. This allows it to assess growth, development, yield and other aspects, such as tolerance and resistance to environmental stressors, by correlating these to the physiology of the corn shoots.
The importance of autonomous crop phenotyping
The neat teamwork between Vinobot and Vinoculer has a threefold advantage. Firstly, the system can assess large areas of a field at any time, night or day, while identifying biotic or abiotic stresses in individual regions.
Secondly, this can be focussed to allow high-throughput plant phenotyping, with either selective or comprehensive data acquisition – from groups or individual plants. And finally, the method does away with the need for the expensive aerial vehicles or confined field platforms that are commonly used today. The research’s report claims, the proposed system is cost effective, reliable, versatile and extendable.
Most significantly, the use of 3D models supplied by the robots expands the traditional measurements of leaf angels, areas and number of leaves to enable the potential discovery of new traits. This could provide the means to give scientists the data needed to develop new genotypes of drought-resistant crops.