science tech agriculture crops robots drones chemistry farming biology nanotechnology gas_chromatography
Future Farms Will Be Home To Ground-Crawling Robots And Airborne Drones

by Michael Keller

Not too long from now, those peaches and peppers you love will be getting some TLC from a few farmers’ friends made of silicon and metal.

Engineers at a number of institutions and companies are working on systems that will help farmers tend their crops by offering new insights into real-time conditions of the plants, soil and atmosphere.

“Agriculture right now is at a unique point, with lots of R&D going on,” Gary McMurray, a mechanical engineer who leads the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s efforts in food processing technology, tells Txchnologist. “In the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see a significant change in the farm. There’s a lot of technology coming.”

McMurray says robots, his area of research expertise, are going to be the main enabling technology. The drivers of farm innovations, he says, are U.S. Department of Agriculture research funding and defense contractors looking for new opportunities for their technologies after current conflicts taper off. “Even venture capital is going into agriculture companies,” he says.

In Illinois and at Georgia Tech, for example, researchers are taking steps to use flying and ground-crawling robots to help farmers better manage the land and plants.

At a University of Illinois research farm, visitors are likely to see something in the air this growing season instead of crop dusters. Crop scientists are flying two camera-equipped drones over fields to see if the machines can alleviate some of the work monitoring large acreages of plants for problems. Researchers intentionally erred in applying fertilizer and over- or under-watering plots.  They want to see if the drone’s infrared cameras can detect differences in absorbed and reflected light coming from crops. Such changes can be an indication that plants are under stress from their mistakes or attack by pests.

“As the crop gets up and going, we’ll fly over it and see if we can detect those areas sooner than we could visually from the ground,” said Dennis Bowman, a University of Illinois crop sciences educator, in a statement. “It probably isn’t going to tell us what the problem is, but it will tell us where problems are so that we can target our scouting in those specific areas and determine what might be occurring.” 

(Crop scientist Dennis Bowman pilots a quadrotor drone equipped with an infrared camera over a research crop field. Courtesy University of Illinois.)

McMurray’s Georgia Tech team, meanwhile, has developed a miniaturized gas chromatograph (GC) for early detection of diseases in crops. At the University of Illinois, they’re experimenting with drones to see if they can detect problems from above.

The GC device builds on work miniaturizing an instrument whose home used to be the lab. Georgia Tech’s innovation takes the typically desktop- or larger-sized machine, which is used to separate and analyze chemical compounds, and shrinks it down using nanotechnology to about the size of a 9-volt battery.

(Milad Navaei, a graduate research assistant, holds Georgia Tech’s micro gas chromatograph, which is being developed for early detection of crop diseases. The technology’s portability could allow farmers to quickly evaluate the health of their crops and address possible threats immediately, thus reducing crop losses. Courtesy Rob Felt/Georgia Tech.)

Their idea in creating a mobile GC is to test the air immediately around crops for compounds called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Plants naturally emit these chemicals, but changing emission levels can be an indicator of disease or pest attack, the bane of farmers everywhere. In fact, plant pathogens and pests cause U.S. farmers to lose 12 percent of their crops every year. “It’s been known for a hundred years that VOC levels change based on the health of a plant,” he says. “It was known as a tidbit of information that everybody said, ‘Gee, that’s kind of cool.’”

Nobody, he says, has used such knowledge in any diagnostic capacity because you’d have to take a sample, send it off to the lab and wait for two or three weeks for results. Plus farmers don’t necessarily want to read analytical chemistry reports; they want to know a course of action to take to minimize damage to their crops.

But bringing the lab into the field can transform what was arcane scientific knowledge into a useful tool to bolster crop yields and, by extension, food security and agricultural economics. Such systems would implement a whole new level of surveillance that might be able to detect when things are going bad but before telltale visual symptoms arise on crops.

“I could put a hundred of these types of sensors on a mobile robot, drive it through a field and be done doing the chemical analysis by the time I get to the end of the field,” he says.

There are still many questions the Georgia Tech team needs to answer about their GC microsystem. What is the VOC signature that would tell them when a plant is suffering? When there is a change in emissions, can you tell if that means the plant is being attacked or some other issue is at play?

McMurray says the team is working to answer these questions, and is right now looking at two economically damaging pathogens that attack peach trees and bell peppers.

But the GC sensor is just the first instrument in what they hope to develop: a mobile robotic platform that can serve multiple functions. The system could be equipped to produce an accurate picture of real-time conditions in the field—crop canopy height, soil moisture, rainfall, hyperspectral signatures and chemical analyses.

And these would be just one element in what sounds like an intelligent Swiss Army Knife for future farmers. “We have broader aspirations because you don’t want to buy a tractor that does just one task,” he says. “You want a robot that does sensing, intervention, weeding and pruning. That’s our long-term goal.”

Top gif: A quadrotor drone equipped with an infrared camera flies above a University of Illinois research crop field. Gif created from Youtube video courtesy of University of Illinois.

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