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Nebraska Farmers Could Benefit from Study by Robots

Corn crops are threatened in Nebraska and across the United States by the changing weather. (Virginia Carter)
Corn crops are threatened in Nebraska and across the United States by the changing weather. (Virginia Carter)
April 12, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. - Severe weather brought on by climate change is threatening crops in Nebraska and across the United States, and a study - part of a grant by the National Science Foundation - is under way at the University of Missouri to determine how corn grows in drought conditions.

University engineers have built robots to monitor soil and air temperature, humidity and light levels. Gui DeSouza, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at Mizzou, said crops are struggling with the changing weather and won't be able to produce enough food for a world population of 9 billion by 2050 - as they're learning firsthand.

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

DeSouza said the idea is to find plants that can resist the changing climate, and that may mean developing new genotypes. Corn is a major commodity for Nebraska, and the state is at the top of the list for popcorn and white corn production. In 2016, 1.7 billion bushels of corn were produced in Nebraska for grain.

DeSouza explained how the technology works, saying 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 and inspect individual plants."

DeSouza said science has to adapt to the changing conditions, with an end goal of producing crops that are able to feed as many people as possible - and for that, 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 United States.

Information is online at munews.missouri.edu and a related video is at vimeo.com.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - NE