Robots are helping researchers work to end world hunger

The project uses automated systems to gather and analyze environmental impact on crops.

At a time when many people are concerned about the potentially negative impact of robotics on individuals' lives and livelihoods, researchers at the University of Missouri are relying on robots for a project that's decidedly pro-human: fighting world hunger.

Robots are helping scientists track crops and how they grow in drought situations. Knowledge gained from the 3D images and data the robots create and collect could help agriculturists develop corn that is more drought resistant.

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To develop 3D images of corn plants in the field, the research team developed a combination approach of a mobile sensor tower and autonomous robot vehicles equipped with three levels of sensors and an additional robotic arm.

The tower inspects a 60-foot radius of a given field to identify areas affected by environmental stresses, while the vehicle collects data on individual plants. The sensors have the ability to measure various heights of the corn plant in order to reconstruct the 3D image.

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Image: ViGIR Lab/University of Missouri at Columbia

Measurements taken from the tower alert researchers if plants are under stress such as heat or drought, and the tower then signals the mobile robot to go to a particular area of the field and collect data on individual plants.

The robots can collect data on temperature, humidity, and light intensity at three different levels on the corn plant. This is referred to as plant phenotyping, which assesses growth, development, yield, and other characteristics.

"We develop robots that can extract phenotypes of plants in the field and correlate those traits against plant behavior, resistance to abiotic stresses, and ultimately to yielding," said Gui DeSouza, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the university and head of the research team.

Computer vision plays an important role in the technology. "Without cameras and all the algorithms that we develop for 3D imaging, feature extraction, navigation, etc., it would not be possible to do what we do with these robots," De Souza said.

Developing drought-tolerant corn that makes efficient use of available water will be vital for sustaining the estimated 9 billion global population by 2050, according to the researchers.

The group includes colleagues and students in DeSouza's Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory, as well as other researchers at the university.

The research effort began in 2012, and in 2014 the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the university a $20 million grant as part of a multi-institutional consortium to study climate change and how corn maintains plant growth during drought conditions.

Using funding from NSF, university engineers on a multi-disciplinary team developed the robotic system that they say is changing the way scientists study climate variability, crops, and plant composition.

"There is still a lot to be done, especially in the plant science side," De Souza said. "That is, studying the correlations [provided by the data] and determining the families and the genotypes that will indeed help plants [such as corn and soybean] to adapt to those abiotic stresses."

But the project retains its ambitious goal of helping to end world hunger. "Hopefully, robots and precision agriculture in general will help," De Souza said.

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