Just as ranchers evaluate their animals phenotypically to select for certain traits, horticulturalists are doing the same with plants. In the summer of 2020, scientists and faculty at Texas A&M AgriLife and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will have the opportunity to evaluate plant phenotypes in one of the most innovative and technological ways yet: with the construction of a robotic greenhouse.
The construction is a multi-million-dollar project, capped at $3.5 million, and will use advanced sensor technology to “enhance agricultural crops in the areas of crop health, yield, nutrition, temperature, drought stress and other environmental conditions,” according to an official statement by Texas A&M AgriLife.
The project was funded by the Chancellor’s Research Initiative Award and matched by the Governor’s University Research Initiative Award. Additional robotic equipment is funded by a Research Development Fund Award.
The construction will include two 2,400-square-foot greenhouses and one 3,813-square-foot headhouse. The robotic system will consist of a gantry beam across the entire length of the greenhouse. A rolling truck with a robotic arm that can reach out to perform research such as plant health and movement and includes a sensor head with a multispectral camera and a spectrometer, will transit across the beam.
The sensors will have the ability to photograph individual plants and transmit the data to a computer. The computer will then use algorithms to analyze the data and provide common metrics to researchers, such as stalk thickness, how much light is reflected in certain spots, or the amount of weeds in the pot, said Dr. Alex Thomasson, AgriLife Research engineer and professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Texas A&M University.
“Historically, the phenotypes of plants were measured by technicians and graduate students using very simple devices like rulers and possibly a light meter, so they were done fairly slowly, which limits the number you can do,” Thomasson told WLJ.
“This new greenhouse will have a robotic system that has enabled us to measure lots of plants very quickly, and the sensor package will enable us to make measurements that in the past we have not been able to make.”
With the greater amount of measurements, researchers or geneticists can look at a larger variety of plants and genotypes.
“What we are trying to do is compare the genetic data to the data we are able to measure about the plant in the physical sense,” he said.
“You relate the physical traits to the genetic traits and begin to realize particular traits—such as a certain plant’s tolerance to water stress—and want to find the gene it is associated with.”
Thomasson said also there are a number of other research programs around the world that deploy similar technology. However, if they are automated, plants are put onto conveyor belts around the greenhouse and the belts carry the plants to the sensor package. The A&M greenhouse will deploy robotics that will travel to each individual plant anywhere in the greenhouse, instead of a conveyor belt system.
Researchers and the graduate students working with them will be the primary users of the new greenhouse. However, Thomasson said he thinks there will be value in showing undergraduate students how advance phenotyping is done and showcasing the learning place for graduate students.
“Projects like this are done because there are fundamental science questions to be answered,” Thomasson said, “However, sometimes fundamental science questions don’t always have an immediate application in the real world.”
Thomasson continued on to say that with the growing population, there is going to be a large increase in the number of people who need to be fed and, “it’s going to take some serious technological advancements to enable us to do that.”
“We have to develop new crops that are more resilient to problems, to diseases and to droughts, and have to develop them in a way they can yield more per acre,” he concluded. — Anna Miller, WLJ editor