MU research team using robotics to study corn plants

By Catherine Wheeler

DeSouza’s team uses a tower and a mobile robot to measure how corn plants are handling environmental stressors like heat. Photo courtesy of Gui DeSouza.

With climate change looming, researchers are studying how factors like heat and drought affect corn plants so that farmers can weather changes better.

In 2014, MU won a $20 million grant to study stress on corn plants, identifying how plants react to different kinds of stressors in the environment

Gui DeSouza, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MU, is part of the research project, which involves more than 20 schools. DeSouza’s research has the potential to change data collection methods from fields.

DeSouza’s team recently published “Vinobot and Vinoculer: Two robotic platforms for high-throughput field phenotyping” in Sensors, a journal focusing on science and technology of sensors and biosensors, according to a news release.

DeSouza’s group wants to gather data to evaluate how to choose corn families to plant that can overcome stressful growing conditions.

The team originally wanted to use drones. However due to strict FAA regulations and other operational challenges, drones weren’t a practical way to study the corn plants, he said.

The team created two robots to monitor the entire field and then assess individual plants and areas of the field. One robot is a stationary tower on wheels, and the other is a mobile robot able to move throughout the field.

DeSouza has been teaching robotics at MU for 11 years and has been in the robotics field for 20 years.

The tower has a platform at the top that rotates 360 degrees, DeSouza said. The platform has two cameras that create 3D models and measure plant height and area, as well as other data.

“Then we have a third camera that basically can impose heat signature on top of that 3D model, so now we can look at the plant in 3D and how the temperature is spread over the plant,” DeSouza said.

The tower can be moved around a field and operates 24 hours a day, which lets the team look at how plants recover during the night.

“The idea is that the tower is constantly looking at the plants, and we can look at how the plants recover at night, which is something that is harder to do with drones,” he said.

The corresponding mobile robot gathers the data from the tower, then it autonomously moves to a section of plants to get more information with three levels of sensors. The sensors collect information such as temperature and humidity at the top, bottom, and middle of the plants, DeSouza said.

DeSouza said the team plans to monitor the plants during the upcoming solar eclipse.

This project can help gather information about how farming is changing. The data can advise farmers on what kind of corn plants to grow and how changing field conditions affect their crop.

This project helps more than just farmers; it helps those studying robotics as well, DeSouza said.

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