Why this ‘spider cam’ is flying over farms

(Credit: Peter Rüegg/ETH Zurich)

Inspired by the spider cams suspended over sports stadiums, a new tool is helping researchers measure and monitor the health of field crops.

This new system will allow the scientists to study the crops in high detail virtually through the entire year. Their mission is to discover the differences between the individual plant varieties and to determine how long they need to flower, or to discover the exact link between their growth and the ambient temperature and soil moisture.

“In ten years’ time, the experienced eye of the farmer and grower will be supported by a broad range of digital tools.”

The team from ETH Zurich is currently studying hundreds of small plots of different varieties of wheat, soy, maize, buckwheat, and forage grasses.

The monitoring system also allows the scientists to investigate whether—and how—fungal diseases develop on the crops, or to monitor weed cover on the ground.

“In the long run, our system is a valuable tool for crop cultivation and precision farming,” says Achim Walter, professor of crop science.

The phenotyping system is based on the same principle as the spider cams: four masts, each one 24 meters (about 79 feet) high, are positioned at the four corners of a trial plot. Between them run double-braided aramid cables carrying the moving sensor head, which hovers up to seven meters (23 feet) above the ground.

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Electric cable-winches at the foot of the masts adjust the lengths of cable between the sensor head and the masts, allowing the sensor to be accurately positioned anywhere above the plot without touching the ground or disturbing the crops.

The sensor head is also equipped with a laser measuring device, multispectral cameras, an infrared camera, and two spectrometers.

The phenotyping system is already a device commonly used in the field, supplying data that can also be used to calibrate images from drones. Walter hopes to be able not only to gather a wealth of valuable trial data, but also to discover more about the limitations and potential applications of different sensors suitable for use in farming in future, for example on tractors, drones, or smartphones.

“In ten years’ time, the experienced eye of the farmer and grower will be supported by a broad range of digital tools capable of identifying diseases and providing information on the potential use of crop agents, for example.

“This system enables us to find out sooner and more accurately exactly what challenges we need to tackle in future. What type of advice do we want? Which tasks can we delegate to algorithms and machines, and how much can we depend on them?”

Source: ETH Zurich