ITHACA — Suspended over a farmland acre, just a pigskin’s throw from Nebraska 66, a camera is focused on the action below.

Nimbly pulled between four industrial towers connected to a backyard shed-sized winch house, the state’s only Spidercam system is broadcasting images of corn — not Cornhuskers.

The central instrument in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Field Phenotyping Facility is a specially designed and built, cable-mounted camera platform helping researchers understand how the genetic makeup of corn, soybeans and other crops manifests in each plant's physical development.

“Scientists have been doing plant phenotyping for a long time,” said Tala Awada, associate dean for agricultural research, who helped spearhead the project.

Traditionally, students and researchers must harvest plants, separate leaves from stems, and record size, thickness, reflectivity and color with tools ranging from tape measures to more specialized instruments.

Students in UNL plant science courses are also taught manual techniques to observe physiology — how the plants exchange gases, retain water and nutrients and other biological processes — as they tear into plants to understand how genes manifest physically.

The marriage of plant science, engineering and computer science, as well as advances in imaging technology, has created a 21st century version of phenotyping being pioneered by UNL in greenhouses and fields alike.

“The idea is you speed up research, you speed up breeding cycles, you come up with new genotypes at a much faster rate and you better understand the responses to stress because you can study more plants than you traditionally would,” Awada said.

At Nebraska Innovation Campus, corn and sorghum plants are run through a battery of imaging systems within the Greenhouse Innovation Center.

A conveyor system moves each plant through four specialized imaging chambers using visible light, infrared, fluorescent,and hyperspectral cameras.

Data collected inside the greenhouse includes the incremental growth of leaves, how much chlorophyll a plant is saving, as well as its temperature and water retention, which is a marker of how well it can handle stress.

Awada said the greenhouse is a great midpoint for phenotyping research, one where observations from the field can be replicated or where new plants can be studied individually in a controlled environment.

Observing plants in wide ranging temperatures and weather events using the Spidercam platform at the Field Phenotyping Facility will provide added insight to plant scientists' research, said Geng “Frank” Bai, a postdoctoral researcher of biological systems engineering.

Of the 180 individual plots, each 20-feet by 15-feet, roughly 130 are irrigated through a state-of-the-art systems controlled through an onsite pump house — or via cellphone app — to provide precise amounts of water if needed, according to Dave Scoby, a research technologist.

In the future, Scoby said the system will be able to deliver targeted doses of nitrogen to specific plots for study, but the facility’s true strength is testing plants against Nebraska’s arid climate.

“The less stuff we have out there, the better,” Scoby said.

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Overhead, the camera platform designed and built by Spidercam moves 66 pounds of equipment — a payload too heavy for unmanned drones — across a cable system suspended by poles manufactured and installed by Valmont Industries.

The platform, similar to cameras hovering over the players at many of the weekend's biggest football games, features imaging equipment to observe physical characteristics, a sort of face recognition software for crops, as well as near-infrared cameras that can record the temperature of the canopy without casting a large shadow, and multispectral images showing water and fertilizer retention.

Bai can manipulate the platform in any direction from an observation station on the south end of the field, elevating it from mere inches above the ground to a height of nearly 10 yards.

The $592,000 system, approved by the NU Board of Regents in May 2016, was completed in March.

Since planting wrapped up on May 30, operators at UNL’s Agriculture Research and Development Center have wheeled the camera out of a storage container and hooked it into the cable system at least once a week.

As the facility works out the bugs alongside the Spidercam team, Bai and Awada said the Field Phenotyping Facility will move from data collection to data analysis, leveraging the new information, along with data collected in individual labs and the Greenhouse Innovation Center, to advance food production systems for Nebraska farmers.

"This has put UNL in a very competitive place nationally to conduct research addressing current and emerging issues related to food security and climate variability and change," Awada said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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