Robots help shape the future of agro-energy

By Jodi Delapaz

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2016 - Finding ways to grow biofuels faster and more efficiently is key to unlocking the huge potential these sustainable energy resources have as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for transportation, says the Department of Energy (DOE).

Petroleum remains a major U.S. energy import, and is responsible for 42 percent of U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, DOE says, and although use of low-carbon fuels is growing, DOE says it's not growing fast enough.

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Enter DOE's  Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program.

The main goal of the TERRA program is to develop tools that can significantly improve the productivity and efficiency of biofuel crops. Specifically, says DOE, innovations developed in the program are aimed at facilitating the improvement of energy sorghum by enabling breeders to evaluate and identify the most promising plants, capture better information about the plants as they grow- and then use this information to select the best genes to propagate into new varieties.

TERRA's robotics technologies could soon make this kind of research faster, better and cheaper, says DOE.

A central feature of the TERRA robotics program is its enormous “field Scanalyzer,” the largest sensory robot in the world, installed at the Maricopa Agricultural Center in Maricopa, Arizona. The sensing system moves along a gantry, scanning sorghum crops in an area the size of a football field. The system's sensor pack measures the growth and development of energy sorghum with unprecedented resolution, speed and accuracy, says DOE.

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TERRA's robotics platform also includes a sophisticated aerial sensing system. The unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, can survey a field, sensing for various plant and environmental characteristics from the air. By using a UAS, fields can be assessed without interfering with the plants.

Researchers have also developed small land-based robots that can similarly scan a field of sorghum and identify the most resilient plants.

If successful, says DOE, innovations developed in the TERRA program will accelerate the annual yield gains of traditional plant breeding and facilitate the development of renewable, sustainable and affordable biofuel feedstocks, leading to increased production of domestic biofuels and stimulating the global bioeconomy. Increasing the domestic supply of renewable liquid transportation fuels will also reduce foreign energy dependence, boosting energy security, says DOE, while reducing CO2 emissions from the transportation sector.


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