Field Robot Reaps Harvest of Data

July 23, 2016 02:57 AM

Round-the-clock data shows how genetic sequence effects physical traits

An army of specialists could march down the rows, yet have no chance to keep pace. In the dry desert air at the University of Arizona’s (UA) Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC), a massive robot is hovering over a 1.25-acre field of sorghum and gathering unprecedented amounts of crop data. Sliding along 717' of railing, a 30-ton steel gantry is hauling a host of sensors over the canopy and reaping a staggering harvest—5 terabytes of vital crop information each day.

The field scanalyzer records physical plant characteristics 24/7 when necessary, with the aim to accelerate plant breeding by tagging high performing crop traits in the field. Put another way, the scanalyzer performs field work at a blistering pace and sets the table for a phenotype-genotype marriage in the lab. 

Essentially, the data is matched with corresponding genes to boost crop varieties. The scanalyzer robot, the consummate tale-of-the-tape machine, is a big leap forward for agriculture and agricultural research.

“I’m very excited because this could be transformative,” says Shane Burgess, dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the Arizona Experiment Station. 

“For the first time, we’re connecting optical sensors with high-performance computing. This is going to drive technology in engineering as a complement to plant advances,” he says.

“Before the field scanalyzer, we had no means to screen a large amount of crops and therefore we lost precision in the analysis of these data sets,” says Pedro Andrade-Sanchez, precision agriculture specialist at MAC. 

The 1.25-acre test plot contains roughly 200 sorghum varieties, thinned to 40,000 plants. The scanalyzer options for plant measurement are legion. Temperature, photosynthetic fluorescence, dimensions and color barely scratch the surface of possibility. No yardstick, clipboard, paper or pencil required.

The scanalyzer can’t hear crops grow, but it comes pretty close, recording any difference in plant height. Take one sorghum variety with drought resistance matched with a variety lacking drought resistance. A hot afternoon? The scanalyzer will catch a difference in plant growth down to a single millimeter.

“The scanalyzer allows us to evaluate traits we couldn’t have measured manually,” describes Mike Ottman, Extension agronomist at the UA School of Plant Sciences. “It also may provide major progress in similar technological systems mounted to tractors and drones by telling us how well our other equipment is working.” 

Researchers know a great deal about the genetic sequence of crops, but less about how the genetic sequence affects the phenotype or physical traits. “The knowledge gained from this project will impact all the different players across the agricultural spectrum,” Andrade-Sanchez emphasizes. 

Many plant technologies relate to the genome. Until the field scanalyzer, there hasn’t been a candidate technology (outside an artificial, protected environment) to connect the genomic advances to the phenotype and how plants look and behave. 

“This is going to affect farming’s bottom line. We’re talking about better management tools due to more selection of different kinds of crops,” Burgess says. “The scanalyzer continues farmers on an incredible slope of less water, fertilizer and time.” 

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