UAVs and Robots Boost Plant Genetic Research for UGA Scientists

Posted by Betsy Lillian on February 14, 2017 No Comments

It may be a while before robots and drones are as common as tractors and combine harvesters on farms, but the high-tech tools may soon play a major role in helping feed the world’s rapidly growing population, according to the University of Georgia (UGA).

At UGA, a university press release explains, a team of researchers is developing a robotic system of all-terrain rovers and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can quickly and accurately gather and analyze data on the physical characteristics of crops, including their growth patterns, stress tolerance and general health.

UGA says this information is vital for scientists who are working to increase agricultural production in a time of rapid population growth.

“By the middle of this century, scientists estimate the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion people, which is a 30 percent increase in a little more than 30 years,” says Changying “Charlie” Li, a professor in UGA’s College of Engineering and the principal investigator on the project. “This increase in population will demand that we nearly double our current food production. That’s a tall order, but one solution is to use genomic tools to develop high-quality, high-yield, adaptable plants.”

Though scientists can gather data on plant characteristics already, the process is expensive and painstakingly slow, considering researchers must manually record data one plant at a time, says UGA. However, the team of robots developed by Li and his collaborators could allow researchers to compile data on entire fields of crops throughout the growing season.

The project addresses a major bottleneck that’s holding up plant genetics research, says Andrew Paterson, a co-principal investigator. Paterson, a specialist in mapping and sequencing flowering-plant genomes, is a regents’ professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

“The robots offer us not only the means to more efficiently do what we already do but also the means to gain information that is presently beyond our reach,” he explains. “For example, 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.”

In addition to multispectral, hyperspectral and thermal cameras, the team is also using LiDAR, which allows the researchers to create precise, three-dimensional images of the plants they study.

During preliminary testing of the system last year at UGA’s Iron Horse Plant Sciences Farm, Li estimates that the team collected 20 terabytes of data over the six-month growing season. He says the team will collect 30 times that amount when the technology is fully deployed.

To analyze these massive data sets, the researchers are developing an artificial intelligence algorithm similar to the facial recognition program Facebook uses to facilitate the identification and tagging of people in a photograph, says UGA.

“As an example, our algorithm will be able to scan an aerial photo of a large field and automatically identify the location and number of flowers on each plant,” explains Li.

Javad Mohammadpour Velni, a co-principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is also developing a suite of analytical tools that will allow the ground and aerial vehicles to operate independently but collaboratively to efficiently cover fields and collect different types of data.

The UGA researchers believe their work will provide a platform for plant geneticists to gather massive amounts of phenotype data and empower advances in crops that sustain the planet’s population, according to the university.

The team’s project is supported by a $954,000 grant from the National Robotics Initiative, a program jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of next-generation robots in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of UGA: Changying “Charlie” Li, a professor in the UGA College of Engineering, calibrates a prototype all-terrain robot while a drone hovers nearby at the Iron Horse Plant Sciences Farm. Credit: Kyle Johnsen

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