Corn monitoring robots help scientists study the effects of climate change on food crops

crop robot
Video screen capture Vimeo / University of Missour

One of the major impacts of climate change in the coming years will be a shift in how and where we grow our food. With rising temperatures and increasing drought in many areas, where our different foods grow best will change and some crops may have hard time growing anywhere.

Computer scientists are building models to see which crops will grow best in which area, but it's also important to figure out which species of crops will be the most resistant to the effects of climate change so that they can grow even in harsher environments.

That is the goal of researchers at University of Missouri. The team has built a robot system that is monitoring how different corn species are being affected by drought and heat. The data collected will help scientists pin point which species do best in hotter and dryer conditions so farmers can focus more on planting those species in the future.

Gui DeSouza, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and head of the Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory has previously worked with his colleagues in the university's agriculture department to create 3-D images of plants' root growth in the lab, but now DeSouza and his team have built a system that is creating those images out in the field.

The robotic system consists of a mobile sensing tower that monitors the field within a 60-foot radius of the tower, checking for any signs of environmental stress. If the tower takes measurements that indicate stress, the robot is deployed to the area to take measurements of individual plants and create 3D models of the plant and root system to see how they are being impacted by the stress of heat and lack of water.

"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. 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. 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."

A field of crops can have multiple towers to monitor its entirety. The towers can monitor the health of the plants day and night, providing a wealth of data to researchers not available before.

Tools like these can help scientists find the crops that will ensure food security for the world even in a changing climate.

Fighting World Hunger: Robotics Aid in the Study of Corn and Drought Tolerance from MU News Bureau on Vimeo.

Corn monitoring robots help scientists study the effects of climate change on food crops
The robots will help to discover which species of corn are most drought and heat tolerant.

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