High Tech: High Efficiency

Posted June 6, 2014

For some, the last three years have progressed slowly. But for researchers working on groundbreaking technology, the progress made in the last three years has made time pass in the blink of an eye. Researchers from around the nation have been assembled at Kansas State University to work on the high throughput phenotyper project.

Photo: High Throughput Phenotyper.
At first glance the high throughput phenotyper is a gangly looking machine crawling across the test plots at about two miles per hour. It has long arms attached to a self propelled, cabless contraption that is painted a dark gray. On the front there is a folded white sheet that tends to flap in the Kansas wind. But, it’s not the appearance that makes this machine beautiful, it’s the technology and the effect that it can have on wheat producers.

Attached to the arms are sensors that that measure the phenotype (appearance) of the plant. Data recorded includes the height, temperature and biomass of the wheat plant via sonar wavelengths at a rate of 10 measurements per second. But the data that is gathered for a specific area after the ride isn’t lost in the waves of grain. The phenotyper also relies on two GPS tracking devices that will correspond with a time-stamped record of data so the user can know exactly where the phenotyper was in the field when that data was collected.

“Every reading we get is matched with a timestamp and GPS, every single one,” says Joshua Sharon, the agricultural science technician on the project. “So you can go back and know that it’s this plot and if you want you can go out to the exact part of the field and look at it you can.”

The high throughput phenotyper utilizes a high definition camera, focused directly at the plants from above, which continuously takes photos throughout field. In order to capture consistent photos, the camera needed a shade, which is the purpose of the white sheet. Over the course of the two hours it takes to analyze the plot, the camera itself will gather around 90 gigabytes of data. Next year the project team members hope to add another high definition camera in order to create a three-dimensional image of the field.

“We are getting much more precise measurements and we’re also able to measure much faster,” says Dr. Jesse Poland, the research geneticist on the project. “On average you can measure a plot every one to two seconds.”

While this project may seem lofty, it will have very practical effects for wheat growers. The project enables researchers to weed through non-efficient wheat varieties. For example, based on the data the phenotyper has gathered, they can monitor if the greener varieties could possibly produce more grain. This information can help wheat breeders decide which variety of wheat will work best for their needs, which will ultimately result in more productive varieties for wheat growers.

“Wheat variety development is a numbers game,” said Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat. “This is exciting technology because of its ability to produce rapid data more efficiently for breeders and geneticists across the region.”

The high throughput phenotyper is an ongoing research project supported by the National Science Foundation, Kansas State University, United States Department of Agriculture, Kansas Wheat Commission and the  Kansas Wheat Alliance and has been recognized internationally for its merits.