With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of Missouri has developed a robotic system that helps researchers study crops and plant composition in new and interesting ways.

Scientists from MU’s Vision-Guided and Intelligent Robotics (ViGIR) Laboratory and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, along with Todd Mockler, principal investigator with the nearby Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, are collecting corn trial data using this technology.

Specifically, the research team uses a robot vehicle loaded with sensors and a mobile sensing tower. The tower can inspect a 60-foot radius in a given field, scanning for environmental stresses. Meantime, the vehicle collects data on individual plants. Using this data, researchers can reconstruct 3-D images of individual corn plants they are studying.

“The tower signals the mobile robot, which we call Vinobot, to go to a particular area of the field and perform data collection on individual plants,” says Gui DeSouza, MU associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “The Vinobot has three sets of sensors and a robotic arm to collect temperature, humidity and light intensity at three different heights of the corn plant. This is called plant phenotyping, which assesses growth, development, yield, and items such as tolerance and resistance to environmental stressors by correlating these to physiology and shape of the plants.”

Having a robotic helping hand means Vinobot and the tower can work day or night, generating more data than any aerial vehicle could collect, DeSouza says.