Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are leveraging expertise in crop phenotyping with the development of the PheNode, a smart, farm-ready, solar-powered environmental sensor and phenotyping station for crops.

“With a suite of diverse sensors on the PheNode, we can continuously monitor field crops for growth rate, stem diameter, height, leaf shape, leaf angles, canopy closure, light interception and the relationship of these traits to enhanced canopy photosynthesis,” says Nadia Shakoor, research scientist in the Todd Mockler laboratory. “The PheNode will help crop science innovators to identify ideal canopy architectural and leaf metabolic features to breed crops for increased yield.

“We see a need for more sustainable crop production with minimal water and energy inputs, and a need to anticipate changing environmental conditions, like elevated CO2 levels, that will affect farming.”

The prototype was developed by Shakoor, Mockler and colleagues, and was recently highlighted at the 2016 Ag Innovation Showcase and SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas.

Modular sensors and cameras on the PheNode take real-time measurements of temperature, humidity, CO2, rainfall, air quality, wind speed, light quantity and quality, soil moisture, soil temperature, pH and nutrient composition. The PheNode allows researchers, breeders and farmers to monitor directly within the plant canopy, providing crucial information for both crop improvement and precision agriculture.

“Direct canopy measurements are particularly challenging due to inherent difficulties in taking the measurements, high levels of temporal and spatial variation, and an inability to generalize local measurements to the landscape scale,” adds Shakoor. “The PheNode provides growers with an affordable and comprehensive crop phenotyping system that will provide a snapshot into a crop plant’s environment.”

A modular minirhizotron system is incorporated into one version of the PheNode to take images of crop roots in the soil, allowing observation of root growth and development in real time. The PheNode is powered by a solar panel with a backup battery, and all sensor data is stored locally and transmitted via Bluetooth or WiFi.

Development of the PheNode is part of a larger effort at the Danforth Center to take discovery from the laboratory to the marketplace.

“When the PheNode was presented in front of investors, farmers and the industry at Ag Innovation Showcase, we received positive feedback and found a niche market demanding a product like this in the field,” said Mockler. “The positive feedback validates the investment of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E, the TERRA program which has partially supported PheNode development.

“The next phase for the PheNode is aligning with investors who seek to impact agriculture by giving farmers and breeders the ability to have and use vital information at their fingertips.”