How 3D Helps to Feed the World

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Using 3D to Assess Plant Health

Every day millions of plants are measured with a ruler or assessed with the naked eye. Biologists and plant breeders want to develop new crop varieties which are resistant to global challenges like climate change. To achieve this they need to identify plant varieties (genotypes) with features that better resist drought, heat, salinity, diseases, and many other threats agriculture is facing. We automate all of these manual measurements with a 3D scanner we specifically designed to assess plants.

PlantEye 3D Scanner used to measure the influence of different LED light settings on lettuce.

Phenospex was co-founded by biologist Grégoire Hummel who faced the challenges of manual measurements during his PhD. Twelve years ago he started with some basic 2D plant imaging when his research needed a large amount of measurements that he could not make by hand. Algorithms were able to extract some plant data from the images. A large number of plants were measured and analyzed which made the experiment groundbreaking and a great success.

But we quickly noticed that 2D imaging would not be enough to generate all required plant parameters. Plants have complex structures and architectures which tell a lot about the features of the plant. In contrast to 2D, 3D is capable of mapping these important features into plant parameters.

For instance, the proper orientation of the leaves towards the sun can improve the photosynthetic capacity dramatically. This leaf angle parameter helps to breed plants with higher growth and a bigger biomass. Therefore we started to develop our 3D scanner called PlantEye.

PlantEye is specifically designed to measure plants and can combine 3D with multispectral data. It delivers all the data a biologist or breeder needs to make their selections.

3D Model of a cabbage plant from which we calculate all plant parameters.

PlantEye for Plant Analysis

By moving PlantEye over the plants with tractors or robots we can create a 3D model with spectral (color) information. Scanning takes 1 minute with our smaller lab tools and up to a few hours for entire fields.

We use the 3D models as a source to calculate many different kinds of plant parameters such as plant growth, biomass, plant height, leaf area and orientation, or we use the color to quantify diseased or lethal leaf tissue or get insights about the physiological or nutritional status of the crops.

Spectral information (NDVI parameter) is used to detect dead tissue on plants.

These parameters are available within a few seconds after the scan and are used to assess plants. For instance, which plant grows the fastest or which plants have the highest resistance to disease or drought.

This data can also be used to monitor the production of crops in greenhouses, since the sensors can detect the slightest differences of growth anomalies, which a human eye can never do. This allows early countermeasures, which ensures food quality and lowers production costs in resources and money.

Growth analysis on tomato seedlings. The large amount of measurements show the growth and diurnal (day and night) rhythm of the plants.

Challenges

The biggest challenges in using high tech in agriculture are the environmental challenges. Sunlight, high temperatures, dusty and humid environments, bumpy or uneven ground, and remote sites of operation are just a few of them and this makes it very hard to generate reproducible data with a resolution below 1 mm.

It took us more than 7 years of hard work and a lot of testing. We had to learn a lot of lessons to develop the basic technology of PlantEye to cope with all the challenges. But the work paid off and we are proud to have a worldwide unique sensor that delivers all the required information under varied environmental conditions.

What’s Ahead

The impact of agriculture on our environment is massive and agriculture today is running on costs of tomorrow. The massive application of pesticides and fertilizers is destroying our biodiversity and our soils. Agriculture is responsible for more than 70% of our water consumption and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The World population will reach 10 billion by 2050 and we urgently need to revolutionize the way we develop and produce crops today. In short, we need to produce more food with fewer resources.

Sensors like our PlantEye, data, and automation will play a key role in this global challenge. This is the motivation which drives us at Phenospex. We want to be part of this revolution and actively push this field forward to make agriculture more efficient in the future.

 

About the author

Phenospex

Our key objective is to provide fully automated and integrated plant phenotyping platforms, that delivers high quality data and analysis tools in order to extract knowledge to answer scientific questions.


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