CSIRO looking for partners to help bring new tech to market

By: Andrew Hobbs

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The CSIRO is looking for a partner to help bring a new technology to market which could speed up plant genetic research by three years at a time

The CSIRO are looking for a partner to help bring new technologies to the market
CSIRO looking for partners to help bring new tech to market

Equipped with cutting-edge technologies, controlled by joystick and measuring 1.93m high, the phenoMobile Lite might look a little out of place in most farmers’ sheds.

But the machine, the product of 11 years of development work by the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF), could become a more common sight on Australian farms in near future, as the CSIRO seeks a partner to help bring the product to a wider market.

It comes as phenotyping, the process of measuring the traits of a plant, becomes more common on farms worldwide as farmers try to increase their yield in more marginal environmental conditions.

Xavier Sirault, the director of the High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre at the CSIRO, tells Farms & Farm Machinery that this can include a plant’s chemical composition – such as identifying sugar cane plants with more sugar content, or grains with higher protein levels.

But it can also look at how a plant interacts with the environment – such as under a current CSIRO project, where the organisation is aiming to identify the genes that help plants use water more efficiently.

"To do this we are creating plant populations, we are crossing them together and planting them in different locations," Sirault says.

"A machine such as the phenoMobile Lite allows you to quantify how that cross is behaving in a certain set of conditions. If this behaviour is superior to the average of all the crosses, you have got genes of interest – and we try to isolate them to breed into adapted varieties in Australia."

But the process of measuring the plants in these trials is an intensive one – with a variety of different aspects of the plant being measured at any one time.  

"Usually hundreds of thousands of measurements are performed to select individuals or to identify origins of the genome that have traits of interest," Sirault says.

"If you look at a thousand plots, today with our machine it would probably take you a couple of hours to do the whole thing – that is, to get the information coming out on the biomass on each of the plots."

"It would otherwise take 10 people all day to do the same amount of work… just to harvest the plant, then the next week you are going to have those 10 people processing the material, and then in three weeks’ time you will have the information that you are looking for."

This, Sirault says, could cut the amount of time it takes to produce a new seed variety with beneficial genes from 15 years to potentially less than 12.

"Instead of having a person doing this on a daily basis, we are using robots to do it on a constant basis and screen many, many more plants, so that we know when we have identified something special," he says.

This is the phenoMobile lite
This is the phenoMobile lite

What makes the phenoMobile Lite more efficient today is its light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology, which uses light pulses to generate a precise 3D reconstruction of a crop that researchers can analyse on a cloud-based data visualisation platform.

However Sirault says up to 50kg of additional equipment can be added to the vehicle, including commercially available sensors such as the Green Seeker spectral sensor, used to assess the nitrogen content of plants.

Measuring 2.7m long and 2.4m wide and weighing about 600kg, the phenoMobile Lite can travel at a top speed of 6km per hour, with the operator walking behind it as it moves, controlling data collection using a tablet interface that is affixed to the vehicle.

It was designed to be mobile, portable and easy to use in rugged environments, as well as being adjustable and flexible – to be able to cope with different crop heights and widths, as well as being able to hold a variety of different sensors.

There are also plans to eventually integrate other sensors into the phenoMobile, which may include portable X-Ray technologies and infared vision, to better identify how a plant is using water, as well as potentially an automated control system – allowing the vehicle to move along tramlines similar to those used in precision agriculture. 

CSIRO research scientist Michael Schaefer says experience in automated control is one of the things he is hoping a future commercialisation partner can bring to the phenoMobile Lite.

The phenoMobile is a product of 11 years of development work

"One of the most important things we are looking for in a partner is someone who has got an ongoing maintenance capability, because that is obviously a big issue," he says.

"You need the production ability – someone who is going to be able to produce these vehicles – and the financial stability to keep that platform running," he added – saying that there was currently a demand for at least 15 of the machines by different parties.

"From then on the platforms could be produced as needed not only for plant phenotyping, but also other applications, such as forestry, farming systems and mining." 

"So that is what we are looking at, and if the partner wants to make improvements to the vehicle that is their own prerogative to do so."

Expressions of interest from companies with the right technical, manufacturing and financial capacity to taking the phenoMobile Lite to the next stage are currently being sought.

Investors and other interested parties are encouraged to request an EOI form from Marni Tebbutt, who can be reached via email at marni.tebbutt@csiro.au.

Demonstrations and pilot studies can be organised on request, with the CSIRO aiming to find a licensee or commercialisation partner by the end of the year. 

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