Robotics Aid in the Study of Corn

Kelly Marshall

Two years ago the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $20 million grant to the University of Missouri to study corn root growth during drought. Thanks to that funding, engineers at Mizzou led by associate professor Gui DeSouze have created a robotic system to aid in the study of crops and plant composition.

“I’ve been working with CAFNR (College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources) assisting them in experiments where we helped to create 3-D images of root growth in the laboratory,” DeSouza said. “Now, we’re creating robotics to assist in creating those images out in the field.”

The engineering and plant science research team developed a combination, two-pronged approach using a mobile sensing tower as well as a robot vehicle equipped with three levels of sensors. 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 3-D image.

“Measurements taken from the tower alert us if any of the plants are under stress, such as heat or drought,” DeSouza said. “The tower then signals the mobile robot, which we call the Vinobot, to go to a particular area of the field and perform data collection on the individual plants. The Vinobot has three sets of sensors and a robotic arm to collect temperature, humidity and light intensity at three different heights on the corn plant. This is called plant phenotyping, which assesses growth, development, yield and items such as tolerance and resistance to environmental stressors by correlating these to physiology and shape of the plants.”