Purdue University scientists have been awarded $9 million in matching grants to further study how plant breeders use remote sensing technologies to measure the characteristics of plants. That sort of manual, in-field, work can be slow, labor intensive and expensive.

Purdue researchers have developed next-generation technology to gather the same data remotely and process the information through algorithms. Some of the data is gathered via a high-resolution camera and thermal infrared sensors on an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. It can measure plant height, canopy structure, plant architecture, and biomass yield. 

“Manual phenotyping is slow and costly. To do all of this measurement by hand takes a lot of people, and you don’t get a lot of data,” said Mitch Tuinstra, a Purdue professor of plant breeding and genetics.

Tuinstra and colleagues founded GRYFN, a startup at Purdue, aimed at getting the sensing technology to the marketplace sooner. The knowledge can help plant breeders develop better cultivars.

“The technology is really about building a bridge between what is done in the lab and scaling it so that it can be performed in the field,” said Matt Bechdol, chief executive officer of GRYFN.

In 2015, Purdue researchers received an initial $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop remote sensing technologies.  The agency has now funded a second phase of the project with $4.5 million. That money is being matched by several ag companies, including Corteva Agriscience, Beck’s Hybrids, AgAlumni Seed and Headwall Photonics.

Those firms can benefit from improving the plant breeding process.

“When we send people into the field right now to do a trial evaluation, we’re sending plant breeders with PhDs. Those are expensive employees. To have them spend multiple days walking trials, it’s an inefficient use of arguably our most valuable people,” said Jay Hulbert, Ag Alumni Seed president and CEO. “If we can get good data from a drone that either allows us to skip an evaluation or allows us to evaluate only the top 10 percent of the trials, then that’s a huge advantage. It would be a tremendous savings in time and resources for us.”