Duke Pauli (on ladder) uses the world's largest robotic field scanner to research drought-tolerant varieties of sunflowers and sorghum. Southern Arizona’s arid climate makes it an ideal location for drought studies (it was 118°F on the June day when this picture was taken.)
The system uses a robotically controlled industrial gantry, a “Field Scanalyzer,” to place lights and sensors over crops in the two-acre field. Each plant is thoroughly scanned every other day to create a 3-D model of the entire field, that shows the development of plant architecture and leaf morphology, with an overlay of data from the visible and non-visible light spectrum. The goal is to measure how the plants are transpiring and cooling themselves, which indicates how each variety is converting sunlight into biomass. By conducting such research in outdoor field conditions, Pauli can get laboratory-quality data from plants that are subjected to real-world conditions of wind, hard/dry surface soil, intensive sunlight, birds, and airborne pathogens.
The Scanalyzer construction was funded ($4.5M) by the U.S. Department of Energy to study which varieties of sorghum perform the best under drought conditions. Sorghum is a good source of plant material for making ethanol in areas that are too dry for corn.
- ©2021 George Steinmetz
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