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Robot helps researchers to measure plant growth

The different way plants grow in the world’s first solar glasshouse is the subject of a new Murdoch University research project which will deploy custom-built autonomous robot technology.

Earlier this year, a solar glasshouse opened on the Murdoch campus.
It uses clear solar photovoltaic glass panels that let visible sunlight in while using invisible light to generate electricity. The PV panels generate power to run the glasshouse air-conditioning system, lighting, fans, louvers, blinds, and reticulation system to provide an optimum growing environment. 

Understanding how plants grow differently in the ClearVue glasshouse has proved to be very labor-intensive, as people are required to monitor and regularly record germination rates and speed, plant height, leaf number, flowering time, and fruit color and yield.

Dr. Hai Wang, Murdoch University Senior Lecturer in Electrical Engineering robotics and mechatronics expert from the Harry Butler Institute, has secured a Research & Innovation Seed Grant to build autonomous robots to conduct real-time crop monitoring.

“These robots will be equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors and will work day and night recording information on crop physiological characteristics and growing environments,” Dr. Wang said.

Autonomous movement
“They will have a mobile base and be able to move around the room autonomously using modern advanced control and artificial intelligence-based navigation techniques. The cameras will continuously take images of the crops every certain period while the sensors will measure humidity, temperature, and other changes in the environment.

“They will have the capability to collect data on the way plants are growing, as well as valuable information like chlorophyll content, flowering time, harvest time, fresh biomass, the rate of CO2 entering and H20 exiting the leaves, and leaf health.”

Professor Chengdao Li, one of the world’s top researchers on crop genetics, has oversight of the Murdoch glasshouse precinct and also wants the research project to compare growth rates between the ClearVue glasshouse and a standard glasshouse that sits alongside. “This solar glasshouse facility is a world first. Everything is new and there’s a lot we don’t know about the impact of plant growth in this facility,” Professor Li said.

“Anecdotally, we can see that, compared to a standard glasshouse, some crops are growing faster in the ClearVue glasshouse and others are growing slower. We need to understand why, get the data, and then in the future, we might be able to build bespoke solar glasshouses that provide absolutely optimal growing conditions for different crops.”

Research Associate Hao Luo said as part of the research project, the ClearVue and standard glasshouses would be set up identically and monitored for six months. 

“The bench position and rotation of benches, the amount of soil, water, and fertilizer used, and the temperature will be exactly the same,” he said. “The robots will be doing exactly the same work at exactly the same time.”

Dr. Wang said the project was an example of a collaboration between two Murdoch research institutes – Harry Butler and Food Futures. 

"Once we observe the differences between the solar and standard glasshouses, we can optimize our robot system and maximize productivity in the solar-powered glasshouse. We would like to implement our theoretical research into practice areas, and this is a very promising area. We also believe the technique could be further extended to many other industries, including real-time livestock monitoring, bushfire monitoring, mining inspection, and autonomous agriculture.”

Dr. Wang’s research is one of 21 projects funded through the Research & Innovation Seed Grants for Murdoch early to mid-career researchers, with a total of $302,000 allocated. 

Announcing the grants, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research & Innovation Professor Peter Davies said the standard of application was very high.

“All the successful applicants put forward projects that we felt could develop into full-blown research programs over time - they just needed a kickstart, and that’s what this funding program is looking to provide,” he said.

For more information:
Murdoch University 

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