On the Ground and in the Air: Research in PhenoRob Continues despite the Corona Crisis

Field experiments are essential for the quality of agricultural research. Spring is the time of the year when the seeds of the plants for the experimental fields need to be sown, otherwise the researchers will have to wait a whole year until the next vegetation period starts. The sowing of the field crops can be delayed for no more than 4 to 6 weeks. Afterwards the sowing window closes.

With 15 experiments at different locations, the Cluster is kicking off its field phase this season. Of central importance in this context are the experiments on the University’s test fields at Campus Klein-Altendorf. Consequently, Managing Director of the Campus Klein-Altendorf Ralf Pude and his team were under great pressure to carry out the sowing in line with the new safety conditions. “Everything was carefully planned. We had packed and labelled the seeds weeks and even months before the corona pandemic hit us”, says Professor Uwe Rascher from Forschungszentrum Jülich, one of the scientific partner institutions involved in the Cluster. After some consultation and reorganization, many of the plants such as spring wheat and sugar beet were sown from mid-March onwards and most of the experiments could be started. “We are particularly grateful to the team at Campus Klein-Altendorf who has made the PhenoRob experiments possible despite the corona pandemic”, says PhenoRob researcher Lasse Klingbeil.

The key question in this new set-up is how work processes can be organized safely. Usually, scientists and technicians work side by side on the fields. “They meet on the field and do their work together in order to exchange information and to make sure that the right seeds get into the designated plot”, this is how Uwe Rascher describes the process. Since the work that is typically done in teams is now carried out alone, new forms of working and communicating become necessary. For instance, sowing is done in the morning, and in the afternoon the researchers come to collect data by letting the drones fly over the fields. This new form of working together apart not only requires more time but also more coordination. The additional communication has been shifted to the electronic realm. The researchers have set up an information platform for instant communication. “It’s good that we have installed a stable Wi-Fi connection at Campus Klein-Altendorf a few years ago”, explains Uwe Rascher. “This enables us to talk to each other via FaceTime while we are on the field and send pictures in real-time”. The new forms of communication have an additional advantage: a very detailed and instantaneous documentation of the scientific procedure and data collection.

PhenoRob Doctoral Student Jordan Bates from Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Measurements via drones started immediately after planting and will continue throughout the season. The drone pilots fly with different drones and sensors regularly every one to two weeks. These data are gathered and used for answering various research questions in PhenoRob. In principle, there are several types of measurements that can be distinguished. For example, in geodesy measurement techniques for surfaces to create a 3D model of the plant and its growth are used. By taking pictures from different angles and using laser scanners, the growth of the plant is recorded from the outside and displayed in three dimensions. In order to measure the condition of the plant from the inside, the Forschungszentrum Jülich uses spectrally resolving methods. Special color cameras resolve the light reflected by the plants into different colors. They are able to distinguish the different color spectra very precisely and can therefore see which pigments are present in the plant. For example, drought or disease of the plant can be detected earlier than with the human eye by means of discoloration of the leaves. All of these methods are used by PhenoRob to gain new insights into plant growth and apply this knowledge for sustainable agriculture.

Although the field experiments have started and drone flights are already in progress, this year’s data will not reach the density and quality as usual, according to Uwe Rascher. In previous years, for example, there has always been a master course with 15 to 20 students who accompany the field experiments and collect their own material. This year, the course will be held online, i.e. without collecting one’s own data. The already planned participation of international researchers in the measurements themselves will also have to be dispensed with in times of Corona. But a shimmer of hope is in sight for the coming years: the newly developed robot for automated data collection will then be sufficiently tested and ready for use in the field.