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Faster breeding with the Scanalyzer

Is field-scale robotic phenotyping: the next generation of precision ag?

It’s the world’s largest ag robot, and it could be called Precision Agriculture: Next Gen.

Technically, it’s called the LemnaTec Field Scanalyzer. It’s a field-scale machine that looks at individual plants and quickly assesses many agronomic traits including leaf area, plant height, biomass, tip burn and drought tolerance, entirely on its own.

LemnaTec, a German company, is an industry leader in digital plant assessment, or phenotyping. The Field Scanalyzer is one of a suite of plant phenotyping products the company offers. So far only two of these field-scale systems are operational — one is based at the U.K.’s Department of Plant Biology and Crop Science at Rothamsted Research, and one is installed at the United States Advanced Research Project Agency’s TERRA-REF project at the United States Department of Agriculture Arid Land Research Station in Maricopa, Arizona.

“The ability to rapidly and reliably characterize, or phenotype, plants for improved agronomic traits that increase yield has become a bottleneck in the agriculture industry,” says Todd DeZwaan, LemnaTec’s vice president of business development for North America.

“This is where the Scanalyzer suite of products comes in. These products provide researchers and breeders with a variety of high-resolution imaging sensors that enable them to reliably phenotype plants and discover the next generation of agriculture products.”

Can you get one for your farm? Eventually, perhaps, but DeZwaan believes the Field Scanalyzer is currently geared more to the research community.

“We recognize that our technology has direct relevance to applications that farmers care about such as in-field diagnostics, scouting, and precision agriculture,” says DeZwaan. “Many researchers that are using our products are exploring ways that our high-resolution imaging systems could be used to help farmers better manage their fields throughout the growing season.”

The Field Scanalyzer is a “testbed” in this area, DeZwaan says, allowing researchers to assess how their germplasm or other products interact with variables in the field environment and identify the most relevant sensor technologies for farmers to use in real world applications.

DeZwaan says the Field Scanalyzer could be deployed on a commercial operation, but isn’t suitable for high acreage applications like grain and canola production. “Bringing LemnaTec’s technology to those commercial applications will require coupling it to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). This is an area of active exploration and technology development for us in the years ahead,” he says.

How phenotyping works

The Field Scanalyzer has a robotic sensor arm equipped with overhead and side view cameras, as well as a range of optional sensors that monitor environmental conditions (such as temperature, humidity, light, wind and carbon dioxide).

The machine collects this data day and night — and also analyzes the data.

Kasra Sabermanesh, a research fellow in Crop Phenotyping at Rothamsted, is part of the team working with the Field Scanalyzer in the U.K. His team works is running field experiments involving more than 400 different wheat lines with subtle differences. Sabermanesh says it would be very difficult to monitor that many wheat lines without the robot.

“We need to look at them quite closely to identify and monitor these differences. Obtaining the same level of information at the same frequency would not only require a lot more manpower, it would also be error-prone,” he says.

Sabermanesh says the Scanalyzer system is adaptable to different crops and cropping systems. In total his team uses the Scanalyzer to work with three crops — wheat, oilseed rape and oats — in a three-year rotation.

LemnaTec’s smaller Scanalyzers have already seen interest across the global agricultural community. DeZwaan says the HTS Scanalyzer (a plant analysis screening and phenotyping cabinet) and 3D HT Scanalyzer (an imaging platform for high-throughput systems) are the systems most widely used by farmers for fruit and seed quality analysis.

Products are ordered directly from LemnaTec’s facility in Germany and installed on-site. The company is opening a location in North Carolina in December that will serve as a North American distribution centre.

About the author

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Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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