New, Build-It-Yourself Camera Track System Developed for Plant Phenotyping in the Field

June 21, 2018

camera track system in the field with graphs placed on the image

For about the price of a commercial agricultural imaging drone, plant breeders and researchers can build their own automated field camera track system to help collect data on dynamic plant traits such as crop lodging and movement as they’re happening in the field.

“It enables breeders to quantify plant movement in a systematic fashion. The system could also be extended to other applications such as time lapse imaging and other imaging data that needs to be collected under conditions that prohibit drone flight,” says Alex Susko, a doctoral candidate in applied plant sciences and lead author of the paper published in HardwareX.

two people setting up the camera track system in the fieldAlex Susko gets help building the camera track system in an experimental field on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.

This versatile $5,500 system is one of many new ways for high throughput phenotyping in plants and is designed to withstand inclement weather.

“Since we are interested in the plant response under wind stress, we can operate this system under very windy conditions to obtain videos of plant movement, a novel phenotype,” Susko says. “I’m really interested in how different physiological parameters such as plant height affect plant movement, and in turn, plant lodging resistance.”

Lodging is when the plant falls or bends over due to high winds, disease, wet soil, excess nitrogen in the soil, machinery, or animals and can lead to losses in crop yield.

Peter Marchetto, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, initially had an idea to use a camera across a field on parachute cord to take photos of lodging.

“Existing methods [to collect data on lodging], such as hand-grading or drone imaging, don’t work for short-term events, and, in the case of unmanned aerial vehicles, don’t work in storms,” Marchetto says.

As part of Susko’s research on the movement of plants in the wind, Susko expanded the goal of Marchetto’s idea to photograph small grains under direct wind stress. After some brainstorming in the Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Makerspace, the camera track system was developed.

The system is made up of hardware and electronics that are commercially available, and it’s designed to accommodate 360-degree field of view cameras. It can be adapted to various field dimensions, crops, and sensor systems to get high throughput phenotypic data. Researchers built the system using a 360FLY 4K hemispherical video camera, industrial curtain track, and a Raspberry Pi computer to capture crop lodging and movement data that could not be measured by other phenotyping systems.

Researchers captured real-time plant traits at different locations in their experimental field using the camera track and recorded video of plant movement that this system was designed to capture. They were able to phenotype lodging within the field in less time by using video than using the typical method of manually scoring in the field. They took hemispherical videos of crop movement at varying wind speeds at fixed locations and were able to quantify the movement using MATLAB. The results allowed them to distinguish the movement of two different oat varieties based on the frequency and magnitude of oscillating stem movements in the wind.

“Field camera track systems exist, such as the PhenoSpex FieldScan, but it’s proprietary and primarily designed for container crop phenotyping. Our system is open source, less expensive, and easier to construct,” Susko says. “It’s my hope that a system like this opens the possibility for the discovery of novel plant phenotypes.”

Details of their research and instructions on how to build this camera track system is available online.

For more information, please contact Susko,

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota Rapid Agricultural Response Fund, while equipment was provided in part by MNDRIVE Robotics, Sensing, and Advanced Manufacturing.