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High technology meets fields of wheat

Posted by | May 20, 2014

As my friends and relatives know, I’m quite a dinosaur in several respects. I get a lot of my news the old fashioned way from hardcopy newspapers. I still pay my bills with paper checks sent through the mail. And nothing pleases me more when I get home at night than to find I have a “snail mail” letter from an old friend who took the time to put down ideas on paper with a pen.  

But even I own a smart phone. The ability to keep up with work-related email, as well as messages from friends and family, is one fantastic benefit of the modern cell phone.  I do, indeed, value the technological revolution through which we all are living.

Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey are two research scientists at Washington State University who are doing work in dusty wheat fields that is being transformed by technology.

“It used to be that weighing the bag (of grain) was the only way we had to evaluate a variety of wheat,” Pumphrey said to me. “Yield is still the bottom line, but technology gives us tools for earlier identification of what will be fruitful lines of wheat.”

Some of that technology is pretty cool. Plant breeders now have tiny, unmanned helicopters they use to look at crops in the field. These drones are just a couple of feet in diameter and are operated by remote control. Special cameras on the helicopters record more than what the human eye can perceive.

Researchers can fly the helicopters 100 yards above a field to take a broad picture, or fly them 5 yards off the ground to measure properties in a test plot.

“The cameras tell us information about photosynthesis and the water use of the plants,” Carter said. “They can even take the temperature of the plants.”

These copters cost a few thousand dollars. The real money is in the cameras and sensors, which may cost up to $50,000.

Cameras on satellites high in the sky can also help characterize plants growing in a field. But it can be many days before a satellite makes a pass over a particular location. With smaller devices that the researchers can control, more measurements can be taken at the most opportune time.

“It’s best for us to work on sunny days with little wind,” Pumphrey said. “If a cloud comes over the sun, the plants change how they are photosynthesizing and that’s picked up by our sensors.”

In addition to sending small aerial devices over fields of wheat, the pair of researchers uses a special GPS-guided tractor that has a variety of high-tech sensors on it.

“Instruments that are too bulky for the helicopters are on the tractor,” Pumphrey said.

The instruments on the copter and the tractor are looking at what’s called “phenomics.” That’s a term that includes everything about the plant from growth rates to photosynthetic efficiency to the temperature in the canopy of the plants.

Work like what Carter and Pumphrey do requires interaction with a variety of specialists. Engineers, for instance, are an important resource for the wheat breeders.

“There’s a lot of diversity in our work,” Carter said. “We have to do a little bit of everything, from studying diseases in the wheat, to soil properties, to engineering. So, for example, we might pull in an engineer to help us develop a particular sensor, then apply that to what’s growing in the field.”

Pumphrey grew up in the number one wheat-producing county in Oklahoma. As a young kid, he didn’t even know you could grow anything but wheat. He later got into his line of work for pretty idealistic reasons.

“I had a love of plants, but I also wanted to do good. In this field we work to produce more food using less resources and to help the farmers have a lower environmental impact,” Pumphrey said. “We really affect many lives.”

If you like to eat bread and other foodstuffs made from wheat, you’ve got to wish modern wheat breeders well as they embrace technology to improve varieties of wheat on which farmers — and the rest of us — depend.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.