How robots are helping create drought-resistant crops

How robots are helping create drought-resistant crops

A robotics project in Missouri, USA is looking to tackle world hunger by using autonomous vehicles to collect data that will aid the development of drought-resistant crops.

For every story on how robots threaten the future of humanity, there’s scope for another that shows how they will save us. The fact is, like any technology, the humanitarian benefits and value of robotics to future generations will stem from our choices around their application and the regulations that govern them.

For now though, we can take heart in research at the Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory, undertaken in partnership with the University of Missouri in the US and other scientific bodies.

Population increases, climate change, the loss of arable land, pests and disease all play their part in undermining the world’s food supply. The internet of things (IoT) is rising to the occasion and striving to meet global demand but the effect of drought on many regions of the world remains potentially devastating.

Read more: Real-time disease monitoring unearths power of IoT in agriculture

Laying the groundwork for drought-resistant crops

What started as a collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, creating 3D images of root growth in the laboratory, has flourished into the development of robotics that is helping to create similar images of corn shoots out in the field.

This new robotic architecture for plant phenotyping (an organism’s observable physical or biochemical characteristics) consists of two platforms – an autonomous ground vehicle, known as Vinobot, and a mobile observation tower, or Vinoculer.

As the ground vehicle navigates crop rows, collecting data from individual plants, the tower oversees a 60ft radius of the surrounding field, identifying specific plants for the Vinobot to inspect.

The Vinobot, meanwhile, has multiple sensors and a robotic arm to collect temperature, humidity and light intensity at three different heights on the corn plant. This allows it to assess growth, development, yield and other aspects, such as tolerance and resistance to environmental stressors, by correlating these to the physiology of the corn shoots.

Read more: Italian start-up Evja launches smart agriculture platform for salad growers

The importance of autonomous crop phenotyping

The neat teamwork between Vinobot and Vinoculer has a threefold advantage. Firstly, the system can assess large areas of a field at any time, night or day, while identifying biotic or abiotic stresses in individual regions.

Secondly, this can be focussed to allow high-throughput plant phenotyping, with either selective or comprehensive data acquisition – from groups or individual plants. And finally, the method does away with the need for the expensive aerial vehicles or confined field platforms that are commonly used today. The research’s report claims, the proposed system is cost effective, reliable, versatile and extendable.

Most significantly, the use of 3D models supplied by the robots expands the traditional measurements of leaf angels, areas and number of leaves to enable the potential discovery of new traits. This could provide the means to give scientists the data needed to develop new genotypes of drought-resistant crops.

Read more: Tarzan robot swings above crops for automated agriculture

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How Monsanto protects crops with artificial intelligence

Tractor cultivating field at spring,aerial view

Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically modified crops (GMOs), has announced a partnership with Atomwise. The controversial corporation will use Atomwise’s artificial intelligence expertise to discover molecules that could protect crops quicker.

Atomwise uses deep learning algorithms to discover molecules that might have the desired effect, rather than look at every individual molecule. The program has not been active long, but already has partners at Stanford University and UC San Diego.

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It takes 11 years and $ 250 million for the typical crop protection to come to market, according to Monsanto. Atomwise could reduce the time and cost, while also improving the chances of finding multiple ways to protect a crop from disease or pests.

“Each growing season, farmers around the world are challenged with yield-robbing pests and diseases, yet the average crop protection product takes up to 11 years and more than $ 250 million to commercialize,” said Jeremy Williams, Monsanto’s agricultural productivity innovations lead. “Discovering new solutions is critical, and this collaboration will help bring much-needed crop protection solutions to farmers faster.”

Artificial intelligence is being deployed in all sorts of ways to speed up the discovery process in medicine. Technology companies believe the deployment of deep learning and big data could significantly reduce the time spent looking into cures for diseases, while also potentially preventing another outbreak like ebola or AIDS.

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Tarzan robot swings above crops for automated agriculture

Tarzan robot swings above crops for automated agriculture

Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing Tarzan, a sloth-inspired autonomous robot that can gather crop data from above. 

Innovation is often born out of necessity. At a four-acre test field near Athens, Georgia, plant genetics researchers from Georgia Tech spend every summer in scorching heat measuring crop growth and testing phenotype variations. They are trying to develop the drought-tolerant crops of the future. It’s hard, monotonous work.

This summer, colleagues from the university’s School of Mechanical Engineering will be joining them in the field, along with a team of sloth-inspired autonomous robots developed to ease the workload of millions of farmers worldwide.

Read more: Winemaker uses drones and IoT to boost crop production

Inspired by nature

Tarzan robots take inspiration from the natural world. They’ve been designed to imitate sloths and gibbons by swinging across and along parallel guy-wires. The robots will make their way along the cables while fitted with cameras, capturing each plant from above as they go. It’s hoped that in time they will autonomously carry out repetitive crop monitoring tasks with more speed and efficiency than researchers on the ground.

A statement from Georgia Tech outlines the team’s vision, which is that, in time, researchers will be able to gather more frequent measurements and avoid laborious field work. It’s easy to see how a system such as this could be rolled out around the world, with farmers assessing data in real time while Tarzan does the work.

Read more: IoT in agriculture — sowing seeds of innovation

tarzan robot

The Tarzan Robot: Georgia Tech

Game-changer – or just quirky robotics?

Although it’s clear that Georgia Tech’s swinging agriculture solution could do a job in the field, it’s difficult to say whether it will be an improvement on current autonomous technologies.

On the one hand, this is an all-in-one exhibition of progress in robotics technology. The design imitates a sloth’s leisurely hand-under-hand technique and uses 3D-printed claws to hold onto the wire. The efficient swinging motion helps it use less energy than conventional robots and instead rely largely upon its own momentum.

Read more: Agtech start-up Arable to measure crops and weather with IoT

In time, the research team suggest that solar panels could be added to keep the Tarzan robot out in the field for days at a time.

But many farms already have autonomous systems in place to monitor and sustain crop health. Aerial drones are widely used to gather data on plant health from above, with relaxing regulations and advances in both hardware and software only going to improve over time. Manufacturers such as DJI are also developing autonomous systems that can cover huge areas at a time while spraying crops with nutrients and pesticides.

It’s also unclear how the Tarzan system would provide better crop coverage than a camera dolly, using simple wheels instead of sloth-inspired locomotion.

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Agtech start-up Arable to measure crops and weather with IoT

Agtech start-up Arable to measure crops and weather with IoT

New Jersey start-up has raised $ 4.25m to launch crop and weather monitoring IoT device, the Arable Mark. 

Much of the focus on IoT technology in agriculture has been directed towards the sky, as drones provide farmers with a cheap and efficient way to measure crop health and map out terrain. But aerial technology has its limitations: few affordable drones are weatherproof, and truly autonomous missions are being held back by a combination of regulations and capability.

New Jersey agtech startup Arable is taking a more grounded approach, with a deceptively simple product designed in part by the creative talent behind connected devices from Fitbit, GoPro, Roku and Nest.

Their consumer-oriented design process has led to the company’s flagship product, the Arable Mark, a device that the company describes as “an intuitive, easy to use product” that installs “in minutes”. And it appears to be catching on. Arable has announced a successful Series A round – taking its total investment to $ 5.75 million – as it aims to expand its operation to meet international demand for its first product.

Read more: IoT in agriculture — sowing seeds of innovation

Solar-powered crop and weather monitoring

The Arable Mark is a solar-powered device capable of measuring more than 40 individual environmental data points. The differences in microclimates across a single farm, for example, can be significant, from drop size and intensity of rain to temperature and humidity.

The Arable Mark can connect to external devices, such as cameras or soil probes using WiFi, cellular networks or BlueTooth.

“By collecting the weather [data], we are able to develop field-level weather forecasts that make use of large-scale weather models that have been corrected for the local microclimate. Because so much of crop growth depends on temperature, light, rain, and these core drivers are very patchy, we are able to bring the large forecasts down to scale,” said Arable CEO Adam Wolf, talking to ZDNet.

Read more: John Deere ploughs furrow as Industrial Internet pioneer

Low cost, big data solutions for agriculture

In a blog highlighting its product testing in Zambia, Arable describes how its technology might be applied in emerging markets around the world:

“Precision agriculture is being rapidly embraced by the food industry to grow more with less, create the perfect plant and make the food supply chain more efficient while reducing the negative impacts of farming that frequently contribute to climate variability. What makes this time exciting for global food systems is how low-cost solutions and greater connectivity allow these technologies to be accessible across emerging markets.”

Low-cost sensor technologies combined with big data allow farming communities to keep track of natural resources. Arable has also launched an agribusinesses platform that allows clients to do that more easily, with an overview of weather impact and seasonal progress across hundreds of fields.

Although the launch of the Mark comes at the same time as Arable’s new insights platform, it’s clear that Arable sees the potential applications of its first product as wider than just tech-savvy farmers.

“Our initial product is an entry-level product priced to be appropriate everywhere from Napa Valley to Nebraska, to rural Africa, where it can be used to back weather-based insurance,” Wolf told ZDNet. “We’ll quickly be sold out of our initial run of 600 units, and we’ll be making about 1,400 later this summer to continue filling the backlog of demand.”

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