This article is the first in a series from Top Hat on groundbreaking and unusual academic research. Interested in being featured? Leave us a comment below.
As a roving robot [above] moves through the fields at the University of Illinois, it’s doing much more than surveying thousands of plants. It’s collecting DNA samples and rendering models of crop structure—in a matter of seconds for each plant. This real-time information helps determine which plants will thrive and under what conditions. Armed with this data, crop breeders and farmers can select stronger crops that produce more food and biofuel.
“You can’t do that with an army of people, but the robot can do all of that for you,” explains Professor Stephen Long, a plant scientist at the University of Illinois at Champaign and the director of the Transportation Energy Resource from Renewable Agriculture – Mobile Energy-crop Phenotyping Platform project.
Long has devoted his career to tapping into the full potential of plants. His projects range from replacing oil with biofuels, developing technology for more water-efficient plants and improving photosynthesis rates. His hope is that TERRA-MEPP will help develop biofuel crops to sustain the country so it’s no longer reliant on fossil fuels.
“This is going to hugely accelerate our development of crops around the world,” he says.
Long recruited a team of experts to bring the vision to life, including top engineers, computer scientists and geneticists from the University of Illinois, Cornell University and Signetron Inc.
The robot is designed to withstand the elements yet be light enough to weave between plants without damaging the soil. It navigates using GPS and the aid of several cameras, and can detect humidity, temperature and CO2 levels. With different sensors, it could also measure photosynthesis, says Long.
TERRA-MEPP is just one part of a robotic revolution in agriculture. The TERRA program also includes robots such as a huge “field scanalyzer” that moves above a football field-sized crop to deliver a high-resolution snapshot of plants and their genetic makeup. There is also an aerial sensing drone that can measure field conditions from above without disrupting plants.
Currently, researchers are developing the robot for crops of sorghum. Sorghum can grow to about 12 feet tall, is drought-resistant and, most importantly, can be converted into ethanol. This makes it an increasingly important crop as researchers look for alternatives to fossil fuels and crops that can grow in the face of climate change.
In 2015, the project received $3.1 million in funding through a competitive award from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The program is geared towards combining tech with agriculture to create “sustainable, affordable and abundant plant feedstocks for bioenergy.” It also funds a public database for plant scientists. The TERRA-MEPP project is aiming to sequence the genomes of 500 different types of sorghum.
This month, researchers presented their robot at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, which is designed to bring research to market. The TERRA-MEPP team plan to have a prototype ready within two years and a commercial version by 2021.
One principle benefit is cost reduction. The commercial robot will cost a fraction of what comparable farm tools do, which range in the hundreds of thousands and are much larger and costly to maintain. With the help of 3D-printing, researchers anticipate they could drop the price for a TERRA-MEPP robot to $5,000. A TERRA-MEPP rover with total operating cost estimated at about $13,000 per year would have a return on investment of about $38.4 million over 10 years.
Schematic picture licensed under Creative Commons.