Farmers are looking to "Fitbit style" technology to monitor plant vital signs and speed up typically labour-intensive approach to assessing plant health.
Plant breeders currently test their experiments by growing the seeds in an outdoor field and then evaluating the results, often still by eye, to observe changes and see which plants are doing better. However, as plant breeding technology becomes more complicated, farmers and scientists want specific data about the physical traits of a plant – called phenotyping - including how tall the plants are or exactly how green the leaves are, making the process incredibly labour intensive if done manually.
To speed up this process scientists have developed a tool called the Phenocart, which measures plant vital signs like growth rate and colour, the same way a Fitbit monitors human health signals like blood pressure and physical activity.
The Phenocart allows farmers to evaluate plant health in thousands of plots faster.
Jesse Poland, assistant professor at the Departments of Plant Pathology and Agronomy at Kansas State University said: "Larger sample size gives you more power."
"Measuring phenotypes is very labour-intensive, and really limits how big of an experiment we can do."
The Phenocart is a collection of sensors attached to a repurposed bicycle wheel and handles that a plant breeder can easily push among plants in a field. It is able to rapidly collect data as it's pushed among the plots.
Scientists can outfit the Phenocart with different sensors depending on what they want to measure. Poland and his colleagues used a sensor to measure how "green" their plants were.
"The measure of vegetation index or 'green-ness' is really the easiest and more straightforward way to measure the overall health status of the plant." he said.
The team also used a thermometer to check leaf temperature, which is a good predication for crop yield. GPS is used to pinpoint where the Phenocart measured, which helps the team organise their data. The data is processed by software included in the Phenocart package.
"We really wanted something that we could pack up and take anywhere in the world," said Poland. "We've got lots of international partnerships, and we want it to make an impact across the global plant breeding community." The research team also focused on making the technology affordable to a broad group.