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Robots Help Fight Hunger by Watching Corn Grow

Minnesota had a record corn crop last year, but corn is just one crop under threat from climate change. (USDA)
Minnesota had a record corn crop last year, but corn is just one crop under threat from climate change. (USDA)
April 10, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Severe weather brought on by climate change is threatening crops in Minnesota and across the U.S., and a study is underway at the University of Missouri to determine how corn grows in drought conditions.

It's part of a grant by the National Science Foundation. University engineers have built robots to monitor soil and air temperature, humidity and light levels. Gui DeSouza, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the university, said many crops are struggling to adapt to the changing weather, and they likely won't be able to produce enough food for a global population of 9 billion by 2050.

"Last year, for example, we were trying to plant [and] a sequence of very intense rain came and we had to start over from scratch,” DeSouza said. "So, plants are subjected to a lot more stress than they used to be."

He said the goal is to find plants that can resist the changing climate - and that may mean developing new genotypes. Minnesota's largest crop is corn, with growers producing a record amount - more than 1.5 billion bushels - in 2016.

Explaining how the technology works, DeSouza said measurements are taken from a mobile sensing tower in the field, and if plants are under stress, the robots are sent out.

"So, we study different types of corn, different types of sorghum, and we're looking at those areas and trying to identify when the plants are not responding well, or responding better than the other areas,” he said. "And the mobile robot can go inspect individual plants."

DeSouza said the sensing towers are less expensive than aerial drones and have fewer government regulations. They also can generate more data than the aerial vehicles.

Science has to adapt to the changing conditions, DeSouza said, and the end goal is to produce crops that are able to feed as many people as possible. But for that to happen, there's much more work to be done.

"We want to collect more and more data and be able to address those issues, but we don't expect those questions to be answered completely,” he said. "Every time in research you ask one question, you find a few more that you don't understand, that you have to pursue."

Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska account for more than half of the corn grown in the U.S.

More information on the project is available at Missouri.edu.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - MN