How to grow healthier crops by marrying robotics with phenomics

January 18th, 2020

Agriculture is in its fourth wave of innovation and disrupting what farming, agriculture ecosystems, and supply chains look like. Where will digital agriculture see the most initial adoption?

How to Grow Healthier Crops by Marrying Robotics with Phenomics

When it comes to agriculture and how the food we love is grown, most people don’t think of it as a hotbed of innovation. When we think of farming, what often comes to mind is the generational family farm or the mega-acre corporate farm. While corporations continue to buy family farms, the face of the farmer is increasingly female and millennial.   These digital natives bring with them an expectation and appetite for innovative technology.

Agriculture is in its fourth wave of innovation and disrupting what farming, agriculture ecosystems and supply chains look like. The catalyst is the need to realize greater efficiencies, production yield and profitability.  The use of digital technology and cross-discipline application of innovations from healthcare, biotechnology, robotics and IT is paving the way. This wave of innovation is commonly referred to as Digital agriculture or precision farming.

In 2018, the market for precision crop farming software and services was valued at $307 million with an 18% CAGR between 2018 and 2023.   According to Hexa Reports, precision agriculture will reach $45 billion by 2024.

According to Dr Sirault, Science Leader of CSIRO’s Agriculture and Food business unit, “Digital Agriculture is a widely used term that can be defined as our ability to digitize the whole supply chain in Agriculture – from production in Agro-ecosystems to transformation of agricultural commodities into resources for consumption (supply chain).” Currently, we are observing a new stage in Digital Agriculture that Dr Sirault calls “Computational Agriculture” where Agriculture and Food science intersects with the cutting-edge field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. This combination will result in next-generation decision making and transform agricultural industries – for example, a better understanding of the complex agro-socio-economic interactions along the value chain.

Part of this new stage is the vast array of technology from IoT connected devices and RFID sensors used to measure soil, water, crop health and tracking insects, good and bad, in fields to autonomous robots and drones for crop management is fueling this growth. One example is RapidAim , a device that can hang in trees to detect insect species based on their characteristics movements. A network of these devices can alert a farmer in real-time to the presence of pests and their specific location enabling the farmer to respond quicker with targeted treatments.

Sitting behind all these new devices is a growing number of Big Data and artificial intelligence applications which enable better crop management, purchasing and pricing decisions. Accessible via smartphones and tablets, farmers can make more informed decisions, faster. Additionally, farmers spend less money on pesticides and can utilize pinpoint targeting to treat disease, sooner and more effectively.

Phenomics is dramatically reshaping agriculture

Phenomics is an established field that combines biology, data sciences, engineering and other disciplines to understand and measure the physical and biochemical traits of an organism. In agriculture, it’s focused on plants and how they grow and respond to environmental changes.  What’s new, however, is the use of sensors and robots to automate and scale up by a factor of two or three the collection of plant data or quality on a large number of crop species. Combining this information with new statistical models (e.g. ML and AI) will produce fundamental changes across the whole value chain.

CSIRO US and the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (AFFP) introduced the phenotyping product line at the THRIVE Innovation Summit earlier in March: phenoMobile® Lite and phenoAIR™ pod.

phenoMobile® Lite is a joy-stick driven rugged, mobile field system that captures an image of plant canopies. The user interface is a touch-screen tablet mounted on the mobile platform that manages an array of sensors used to capture information on plants. Using light pulses from LiDAR, it captures the data necessary to create precise 3D analysis and visualizations of crop canopies at the field scale to inform the farmer on crop growth and development.

The same capability is available in phenoAIR™ pod which attaches to a helicopter. Not only can large fields be analyzed but high-resolution aerial thermography provides rapid measurement of crop temperature, an effective method for early detection of crop stress, resulting in reduced yield.

For example, measuring the dynamic of ground cover in wheat – an important trait to reduce evaporation in rainfed area – is usually performed twice a week for a couple of weeks after plants emerge and then once every two weeks until heading.

Phenotyping is just one example of the amazing innovation that is reshaping agriculture. Where will digital agriculture see the most initial adoption? In small farms.   Digital agriculture and technology innovations will enable farms to produce higher yields of healthier crops that will drive higher margins.

CSIRO US facilitates relationships with US companies, government agencies and academic institutions to connect Australian researchers with USA projects to expedite mutually beneficial opportunities for scientific advancements in food agriculture, space, water conservation, wildfire and smart cities. Partnering in open innovation not only brings deep scientific research competencies to the table but also deep experience with a wide range of real-world problems.

In case you’re curious about phenotyping there is a new scientific journal dedicated to the subject, The Plant Phenome Journal , or check out CSIRO AFFP’s wealth of resources and follow @DrXSirault.