World’s largest crop robot revolutionizing crop breeding

Western Farm Press Daily
Maricopa, Ariz.

What is in this article?:

  • The largest agricultural robot on Earth working in an Arizona energy sorghum varietal trial.
  • The crop analytic robot is a Volkswagen-sized field scanner measuring crop growth with unprecedented resolution.
  • Plant data collected by the field scanner will be shared with crop breeders to speed up the breeding process in energy sorghum.

Pedro Andrade, left, University of Arizona, and Jeff White, USDA Agricultural Research Service, based in Maricopa, Ariz., stand in an energy sorghum variety trial where the world’s largest crop analytical robot records critical plant data.


Captain Kirk of Star Trek movie fame would feel right at home operating the controls of Planet Earth’s largest agricultural robot, currently operating in an energy sorghum varietal trial in Maricopa, Ariz.

The crop analytic robot, similar in appearance to a gantry crane, features a Volkswagen-sized field scanner loaded with the latest precision agriculture tools to precisely measure crop growth with unprecedented resolution.

The field scanner which moves east-to-west, north-to-south, and up-and-down above the field is located at the University of Arizona’s (UA) Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC).

Over time, plant data collected by the field scanner will be shared with commercial and university crop breeders to help speed up the natural breeding process in energy sorghum varieties to boost yields and biomass content. The same tools could one day by use to collect plant data for breeding other types of crops.

Over the long term, improved energy sorghum varieties can help growers increase biofuel production, thus helping reduce this nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Robot ribbon cutting

At a June ribbon-cutting ceremony for the robot field scanner system, DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Director Joe Cornelius described the project as “agriculture’s version of the Hubble” (telescope), saying the project’s faster breeding results could place improved varieties in growers’ hands sooner.

The DOE’s Ellen Williams said the project would “revolutionize plant breeding.” She believes the sorghum project could accelerate the plant breeding process by two to three fold.

Shane Burgess, UA Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, noted, “This is history in the making.”

Led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., the field scanner robot project includes specialists from several universities, the federal government, and the private sector.

In the first year of the four-year project, the sorghum trial is largely funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The project budget is about $8 million, not including the field scanner.

The UA receives about $1.6 million to cover the costs to construct the site and for its day-to-day operation.


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