In the dry desert air at the University of Arizona’s (UA) Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC), a massive robot is hovering over a 1.25-acre field of sorghum and gathering unprecedented amounts of crop data. Sliding along a 717' rail, a 30-ton steel gantry is hauling a host of sensors over the canopy and reaping a staggering harvest—5 terabytes of vital crop information each day.

The field scanalyzer records physical plant characteristics 24/7 when necessary, with the aim to accelerate plant breeding by tagging high performing crop traits in the field. Put another way, the scanalyzer performs field work at a blistering pace and sets the table for a phenotype-genotype marriage in the lab.

Essentially, the data is matched with corresponding genes to boost crop varieties. The scanalyzer robot, the consummate tale-of-the-tape machine, is a big leap forward for agriculture and agricultural research.

“I’m very excited because this could be transformative,” says Shane Burgess, dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Arizona Experiment Station director.

“For the first time, we’re connecting optical sensors with high-performance computing. This is going to drive technology in engineering as a complement to plant advances,” he says. “Before the field scanalyzer, we had no means to screen a large amount of crops, and therefore, we lost precision in the analysis of these data sets,” says Pedro Andrade-Sanchez, precision agriculture specialist at MAC.

The 1.25-acre test plot contains roughly 200 sorghum varieties, thinned to 40,000 plants. The scanalyzer options for plant measurement are legion. Temperature, photosynthetic fluorescence, dimensions and color barely scratch the surface of possibility. No yardstick, clipboard, paper or pencil required.

“The scanalyzer allows us to evaluate traits we couldn’t have measured manually,” explains Mike Ottman, Extension agronomist at the UA School of Plant Sciences.

The scanalyzer will catch a difference in plant growth down to a single millimeter.

Researchers know a great deal about the genetic sequence of crops but less about how the genetic sequence affects the phenotype or physical traits.

Until the field scanalyzer, there hasn’t been a candidate technology (outside an artificial, protected environment) to connect the genomic advances to the phenotype and how plants look and behave.

“This is going to affect farming’s bottom line. We’re talking about better management tools due to more selection of different kinds of crops,” Burgess says. “The scanalyzer continues farmers on an incredible slope of less water, fertilizer and time.” 

This article appeared in the October issue of Ag Pro magazine

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