Phenocart puts plant health-monitoring on wheels

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The Phenocart is a tool that farmers can push around to quickly gather data on the health of their plants

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Breeding plants is a time-consuming process, and monitoring changes in crops can be as tedious as – well, watching grass grow. But the age-old method of walking around a farm and examining thousands of plants by hand could soon be replaced by the Phenocart, a device that automatically reads the vital signs of plants and uses a software package and GPS to organize the collected data.

The cart gets its name from phenotyping, which is the process of observing the physical characteristics of a plant, such as height and color, in order to assess its health. It's an essential part of plant breeding, with farmers crossing different species and observing the results to determine if the new crops have the desired traits. The problem is, walking around thousands of plots taking measurements is an extremely labor-intensive task, and human observation isn't always as precise as required.

Enter the Phenocart. Developed by scientists at Kansas State University, it's essentially a set of sensors mounted on a bicycle wheel, which farmers can easily push around their crops. While it still means breeders need to walk the fields, the tool speeds up the process by scanning the plants and automatically collecting data, which is geotagged via GPS to allow the breeders to keep track of the location and status of plants over time.

The sensors on the prototype model measure how green the plants are and the temperature of the leaves, but the creators have designed the Phenocart so that the sensors are swappable, depending on which characteristics farmers might want to measure.

"The measure of vegetation index or 'green-ness' is really the easiest and more straightforward way to measure the overall health status of the plant," says Jesse Poland, of Kansas State University.

The Phenocart is designed to be low-cost, portable and easy to use, and the research was published in the journal, Crop Science.

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