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Plant Team: Missouri Transect Vinobot in the News

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Photo courtesy of Gui Desouza
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Photo courtesy of Gui Desouza

A growing population gets a robotic assist

Technology aids researchers in examining efficiency, yields of crops

Columbia Daily Tribune

Monday, April 3, 2017

By Megan Favignano

As soon as University of Missouri researchers plant in the Bradford Research field later this spring, a robot will begin roaming each row and measuring plant features as crops grow.

Ali Shafiekhani, a graduate research assistant, has worked on the project for three years.

He is hoping to further improve the robot, named Vinobot, during his research this summer. Last summer, the robot examined a field with multiple types of corn plants. The robot collects data then sends it to a tall thin pole, or tower with cameras called the Vinoculer, that also is located in the field. Shafiekhani uses the data collected to create 3D models of the plants.

“Sometimes robots can collect more accurate data than from humans,” he said. “We are interested to collect data from the entire growing period.”

Shafiekhani said the robot has three sets of sensors and an arm, both of which are used for collecting data and measuring humidity, temperature and light intensity. Collecting those measurements is called plant phenotyping and it assesses growth and plant yield. Researchers can then see what plant features are common among plants that are more tolerant of drought conditions or have higher yields.

“For this project, our goal is to have systems that autonomously can collect data from the plant and extract features that are helpful,” Shafiekhani said.

Shafiekhani’s adviser, Gui DeSouza, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and he have collaborated with Felix Fritschi, an associate professor of plant sciences, and Todd Mockler, a principal investigator with the Danforth Plant Science Center. DeSouza said climate change and a growing population worldwide have caused a need to perfect the efficiency of growing crops and the yield of those plants.

The project was funded through a $20 million grant the university received from the National Science Foundation in 2014.

The research team recently published a paper on the project’s progress: “Vinobot and Vinoculer: Two Robotic Platforms for High-Throughput Field Phenotyping.”

The paper documented the system’s accuracy by comparing the measurements or data the robot collected with data collected manually by a research team. While the robot’s data is accurate, Shafiekhani said there is always room for improvement. He’s adding Wi-Fi capabilities to the robot to use during this summer’s research so he can download data remotely instead of going to the field. He’s also working to improve the robot’s navigational system and to enhance the detail of the 3D images created.

DeSouza said there’s no real end for the project. On the engineering side, he said researchers will continue to make adjustments that produce better images and 3D models. And on the plant side, he said researchers will constantly try to improve the crops being grown.

“It’s ongoing. We’re never happy with the end product,” DeSouza said. “We do believe it’s a necessary thing the world requires.”

DeSouza said another team of researchers from engineering and plant sciences has been developing a handheld scanner that collects data as a person walks through the field. That team has studied soybean plants in its research. 573-815-1719

Link to story online:

Other News Stories covering Dr. DeSouza's Transect Research

Nature: January 25th 2017

CoE News: March 13th 2017

MU News: March 28th 2017

Stories about this research appeared in 548 international, national, statewide and online media outlets and more than 17.9 million people had the opportunity to view stories online or in print.



EurekaAlert: March 28th 2017

Julie Harker - Brownfield Ag News - interview on March 28th 2017

RFD-TV in Nashville, TN. - interview on March 29th 2017

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