Tech Improves Research

March 4, 2017 01:03 AM

University of Georgia uses drones, robots to capture data

The robots aren’t coming—they’ve arrived. That’s the case at the University of Georgia (UGA), where researchers use all-terrain rovers on the ground and drones in the air to gather crop data such as growth patterns, stress tolerance and general health.

Changying “Charlie” Li, a UGA engineering professor, says the data is vital as the population spikes, requiring food production to nearly double.

One way to feed more people is to use genomic tools to develop high-quality, high-yielding, adaptable crops. Using drones and robots, the researchers hope to remove an “expensive and painstakingly slow” bottleneck of scientists manually recording data one plant at a time, says Andrew Paterson, co-principal investigator.

“By measuring plant height at weekly intervals instead of just once at the end of the season, we can learn about how different genotypes respond to specific environmental parameters, such as rainfall,” he says.

The robotic assistants will be outfitted with cameras plus LiDAR sensors. During preliminary testing in 2016, researchers soaked up 20 terabytes of data in six months. Once the system is fully operational, they could collect as much as 30 times that amount, Li says.

Researchers are also developing an artificial intelligence algorithm. Similar to Facebook’s facial recognition program that identifies friends and family to “tag” in photos, this feature could identify distinguishing characteristics in a field.

“[It] will scan an aerial photo of a large field and automatically identify the location and number of flowers on each plant,” Li says. Other algorithms will serve as “traffic control”—ensuring ground and aerial vehicles can operate independently but collaborate.

This project is supported by a $954,000 grant from the National Robotics Initiative, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, USDA, NASA, U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health.  

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