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Worm-like robots swimming in the soil to measure the crop underworld

Worm-like robots swimming in the soil to measure the crop underworld

Design robots that swim in the soil in the form of worms to detect and record the properties of the soil, water, soil microbiome and how the roots grow


Crop scientists over the years have learned a lot about how plants grow above ground, but much less is known about the roots and their interactions with the soil.

Now, a Cornell project funded by two separate three-year grants will develop robots that swim in the soil in the form of worms to detect and record the properties of soil, water, soil microbiome and how roots grow.

A $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant led by Principal Investigator (PI) Taryn Bauerle, Associate Professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will focus on plants and soil perspective.

Meanwhile, a $750,000 NSF National Robotics Initiative grant to PI Robert Shepherd, an associate professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering, will develop the soil monitoring robots.

The project will focus on maize, with the ultimate goal of incorporating root growth factors to improve soil management and improvement efforts that directly affect productivity and food security.

“We plan to develop new tools so that we can take advantage of the subway plant and soil environment in a way that allows us to shine a light on a black box of plant-soil interactions,” Bauerle said.

“This is really the next frontier in plant biology,” said project co-principal investigator Michael Gore, Liberty professor Hyde Bailey and professor of molecular and genetic improvement in SIPS’s Plant Breeding and Genetics Section. By quantifying subterranean traits, researchers can identify relationships with aerial traits, Gore said.

To acquire those measurements, the team will develop one- to two-foot worm-like robots that emulate how a drill pierces the ground, combined with a peristaltic motion that mimics how worms move through the soil.

“The front loosens the soil and the back pushes forward and presses that soil into a tunnel wall,” Shepherd said. They plan for a robot to collect continuous data up and down a whole row of corn.

The team will experiment with various sensors and strategies. A robot’s ability to traverse the soil can reveal properties such as soil density and compactness. The robots will also be equipped with small temperature and humidity sensors.

Fiber optic cables could provide a wealth of measurements, including direct images of roots to measure growth and angles. The team plans to employ “AquaDust” developed in the laboratory of Abraham Stroock project co-PI Professor Gordon L. Dibble ’50 at the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the College of Engineering. AquaDust fluoresces at different wavelengths depending on the amount of water in the soil.

The optical fiber could also allow measurements of the excitation and emission wavelengths of soil microorganisms and root chemistry, including carbon compounds exuded by plant roots. “We should be able to determine approximately which chemicals and organisms are prevalent on the root surface and surrounding soil,” Shepherd said.

By quantifying root characteristics, soil properties, compounds, microorganisms and water, researchers can use predictive models to combine the characteristics below and above the soil to predict things like grain yield and stress tolerance, Gore said.

Another goal of the project will be to assess how plants might respond to the effects of climate change, such as water availability. Measurements of root growth, included in the environmental data, can provide information on how roots grow as a function of external conditions, such as drought.

Because soil is not a good medium for wireless transmission, researchers will test prototypes that record data in memory for later retrieval. They can also experiment with acoustic communication through the soil and cables running along a row of corn plants. At the end of the project, the researchers hope to show live demonstrations of prototypes in a corn field.

The preliminary work was made possible by initial funding from a Cornell Digital Agriculture Initiative grant.


Krishna Ramanujan – Worm-like, soil-swimming robots to measure crop underworld

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