The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center uses research, education and outreach to impact food security and improve the human condition through plant science. Now researchers are announcing the development of the PheNode, a “smart”, farm-ready, solar-powered environmental sensor and phenotyping station for crops.
“With a suite of diverse sensors on the PheNode, we can continuously monitor field crops for growth rate, stem diameter, height, leaf shape, leaf angles, canopy closure, light interception and the relationship of these traits to enhanced canopy photosynthesis. The PheNode will help crop science innovators to identify ideal canopy architectural and leaf metabolic features to breed crops for increased yield,” said Nadia Shakoor, Ph.D., research scientist in the Todd Mockler laboratory.
“We see a need for more sustainable crop production with minimal water and energy inputs, and a need to anticipate changing environmental conditions, like elevated CO2 levels, that will affect farming.”
The prototype Shakoor and her colleagues created was recently displayed at the 2016 Ag Innovation Showcase and SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. Visitors were able to view the modular sensors and camera that take real-time measurements of temperature, humidity, CO2, rainfall, air quality, wind speed, light quantity and quality, soil moisture, soil temperature, pH and nutrient composition. With this level of information researchers can monitor within the plant canopy, offering detailed information for crop improvement and precision agriculture.
“Direct canopy measurements are particularly challenging due to inherent difficulties in taking the measurements, high levels of temporal and spatial variation, and an inability to generalize local measurements to the landscape scale,” continued Shakoor. “The PheNode provides growers with an affordable and comprehensive crop phenotyping system that will provide a snapshot into a crop plant’s environment.”
The PheNode can also provided images of crop roots in the soil in real time. The device is powered by a solar panel with backup battery. Data can either be stored locally or over Bluetooth or WiFi. These features were designed as part of a larger effort by the Danforth Center to get research out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.
“The PheNode uses quite sophisticated imaging and sensor technology that we use in advanced research to understand how plants work,” said James Carrington, Ph.D., president of the Danforth Center. “Delivering it to the farm will help growers make better decisions to manage their crops, reduce their environmental footprint and costs.”
“When the PheNode was presented in front of investors, farmers and the industry at Ag Innovation Showcase, we received positive feedback and found a niche market demanding a product like this in the field,” said Mockler. “The positive feedback validates the investment of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E, the TERRA program which has partially supported PheNode development. The next phase for the PheNode is aligning with investors who seek to impact agriculture by giving farmers and breeders the ability to have and use vital information at their fingertips.”