Articles

Robots and drones

September 23, 2019


A rumbling robot and high-flying drone recently
came to Clemson University’s Simpson Research Farm to burrow through and buzz over 15 acres
of experimental sorghum plots containing more than 2,800 replicated varieties. The space-age devices, conceived and constructed
by Carnegie Mellon University and Near Earth Autonomy in collaboration with Clemson University
and other partners, are designed to significantly enhance the ease and frequency of data collection
for crop testing in ways that will eventually benefit agricultural production both in South
Carolina and around the world. So with the project BOOST, what we’re trying
to do is focus on linking plant genetics, plant genomics, plant breeding with high through-put
technology to establish and measure plant traits. These plant traits can be phenotypic measurements
of leaves or roots or grain. And the intent is to work to develop a vertically
integrated system that includes genetics, robotics, sensing, computational sciences
to be able to look at broad amounts of data and be able to analyze that to identify either
useful genes or useful genotypes or varieties that can be used for the production of liquid
transportation fuels. At present, we work through the field, walking,
visually things – and what we’d like to be able to do that magnitudes quicker and
magnitudes more precisely. So we hope to use instrumentation in getting
us through the fields with robotics and sensing to get the data that we need. Because of our growing season, because of
the nature of sorghum being a potentially shorter crop, able to grow on less quality
land unlike some of our more nutrient-intensive crops. So what they’re doing here combined with
potential energy markets, the poultry market, you name it, sorghum is one of the answers. But as was pointed out, this technology will
apply to all of our crops, and using the technology to produce crops at a better margin of cost
is really what I wanted to learn about. I’m very impressed with it. I’m very pleased because right here in our
own backyards, South Carolina farmers should be the first to benefit from that because
it was right next door that this was developed, and it’s applicable and it can work in their
fields the same way it does here experimentally. Simpson REC’s duties are really to supply
resources, whether that be land, labor or equipment. And really small-plot expertise. The Simpson Research Farm is about 2,300,
2,400 acres, and that’s comprised of agronomy, beef cattle and the small ruminant operations
here on this particular location. So I’m a graduate student with Dr. Kresovich. I originally came up here to work with this
project and specifically work with the BOOST. And in this field behind me there are 400
replicated varieties, but across Clemson we have over 5,000 different varieties and across
the state, that number is about 6,000. We have complementary skills. We bring in the technology and the robotics. Steve Kresovich and his group bring in the
expertise in the breeding and the genetics. And it’s difficult to find a relationship. I mean, we speak different languages, right? So it takes a lot of patience on both sides
to learn how to talk and it’s a special group of people when you can make that connection. So we’ve definitely done that with the Clemson
team. Clemson has these beautiful resources that
can’t be reproduced anywhere else, I don’t think. And so it’s a great partnership. I have really a variety of different functions
as project manager. The first is just to make sure the project
functions smoothly, liaising with all the project teams between Clemson, Near Earth
Autonomy, Carnegie Mellon University and the Danforth Center in St. Louis, making sure
that everyone’s connected, that we stay in tune with each other, that we make sure
that everything is moving smoothly and on top of everything. I’m serving as the field manager of the
BOOST program. Mainly my duties include maintaining the quality
of the plants while they’re growing in the field, maintain their health, keeping them
growing as well as we can. That includes fertilizer application, insect
and herbicide applications and then also working with the graduate students with data collection
and harvesting capabilities. So we work with sorghum. But it doesn’t really matter what crop we’re
working with. These techniques and technologies, if successful,
will be implemented across agricultural systems in the 21st century.

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