Lights, Camera, Action!

Imaging Technologies

How big a harvest can we expect? What kinds of grain and which plant protection products allow us to achieve a particular yield? What effect does an extended dry spell have? New digital imaging technologies can make a valuable contribution to getting more detailed, accurate answers to these questions.

Mobile image processing using a smartphone provides Researchers with far-reaching potential for a wide range of new operations and applications. The prerequisites for this were tailored to the requirements of Crop Science.

When you think of a greenhouse, what do you see? A lot of glass, a lot of light and many thriving plants? “See what I mean?” says Dr. Gitta Erdmann, “And that’s why ‘greenhouse’ is a completely inadequate expression for what we operate here in Frankfurt.” A more accurate term might be climatic chamber. Or perhaps the more contemporary Crop Performance Lab (CPL).

Nothing here is left to chance. Everything is measured with great precision and digitalized. All of the plants grow under specified, controlled environmental conditions. In the Crop Performance Lab, different climatic zones can be simulated. Erdmann, who heads the Crop Efficiency Biology group at Crop Science, explains the background to the project: “In the Crop Performance Lab, we carry out research into new technological possibilities for better analyzing different substances, aiming to safeguard yields in the most optimal way possible, even when environmental influences cause problems.” In the controlled conditions inside the CPL, corresponding consequences for the plants – as minimal as they may be – can be made visible. The CPL, however, cannot replace field testing. Such testing remains an indispensable tool. But tests outdoors, in the field, require a great deal of time and are expensive. To judge whether a particular treatment has been successful, the specialists are sometimes left with no more than the harvest as an indicator. More concretely, this means constantly having to wait for the completion of a growth period.

“With digital technologies, the health of a plant can be assessed very precisely.”

Dr. Gitta Erdmann

Crop Efficiency Biology, Crop Science

The great advantage of the climatic chamber in Frankfurt, compared to field tests, lies in the opportunity to easily carry out experiments and tests in winter – and, of course, the harvests in the Crop Performance Lab are not tied to the actual seasons either. With the aid of this technology, one can see very quickly whether a particular substance, strain or seed treatment has potential or not. Only the most promising candidates from the CPL are tested further in the field. Now, digital sensory and image processing systems represent a new element in the early evaluation of plants. Images of the plants are created, and these images, in turn, are automatically assessed in great detail.

With these digital technologies, a wide range of parameters can be derived, on the basis of which the specialists can precisely determine the condition of a plant: How big is the plant? What proportion of it is green? What stress factors are visible? Which metabolites have collected on the surface? How does the water balance look? And how does the thermal transfer function? In short: everything that describes the appearance of the plant is measured. To the experts, this is known as phenotyping.

With the assistance of phenotyping technologies, plants can be characterized throughout their development more accurately and in far more detail. The technologies allow, for example, better assessment of the effectiveness of treatment with a particular substance, or whether the time at which the treatment was applied was actually the optimal point.

Dr. Nina Schwalb and Benjamin Kolb
Dr. Nina Schwalb and Benjamin Kolb are experts in bio-imaging. Assisted by digital technologies, they are able to differentiate a wide range of Parameters that allow a plant’s condition to be determined with precision.

Dr. Nina Schwalb, for many years the head of the Bio-Imaging Group at Bayer Technology Services, concludes that: “With the technologies available today, the growth and development of plants can be observed significantly more objectively and systematically than ever before.” It goes without saying that not every single plant has to be recorded and assessed individually. In the CPL, everything runs completely automatically, including taking pictures of the plants. For this, the entire spectral range is used, including not only the visible spectrum, but also the ultraviolet and infrared ranges.

These processes make it possible to put together a comprehensive picture of the growth and health of plants. But because the assessment of such traits is contingent upon the subjective perceptions of the observer, automated image analysis – comparing and evaluating a wide range of parameters against one another – plays a decisive role. “To obtain a precise assessment of the plants, it’s necessary for all of the required information to actually be contained in the digital images,” says Schwalb, explaining the challenge the specialists face. And she points out that, most importantly, “this information also has to be subsequently made available.” This is where the expertise of Bayer Technology Services once again comes to the fore. Schwalb goes on: “We ensure that the digital information is evaluated and put into a usable form.” More precisely, this means that digital datasets are supplied for every single plant, and these can then be assessed and broader correlations extracted. This subsequently allows the identification of those approaches that are worth pursuing further.

“For research and development at Bayer, we deliver customized technological solutions that have the robustness and maturity needed for long-term, problem-free industrial deployment.”

Dr. Ingo Gaida

Head of Enabling Technologies at Bayer Technology Services

From the lab to the field

Imaging technologies are employed not only in the controlled conditions of a climatic chamber, but also out in the fields. To do this, Bayer Technology Services has developed a multisensor system with a high-resolution camera, spectrometer and laser scanner. The system records the number, size and condition of the plants, and systematically assesses the results. The system is thus equipped to provide precise information about the plants at individual stages of development.

Suitable phenotyping screening and analysis systems are supervised, optimized and subject to ongoing development by Bayer Technology Services, the division thereby fulfilling its obligation to develop technological solutions that are then used by other Bayer divisions in their own research and development endeavors. At the same time, Bayer Technology Services ensures that the technologies under development are tailored to the specific needs of the different partners. This also means that these solutions embody the robustness and maturity needed to guarantee problem-free, long-term deployment in an industrial environment.

In Frankfurt, Benjamin Kolb shows how this obligation is put into practice in the Crop Performance Lab. Every day, Kolb is involved with phenotyping assisted by digital images. The engineer began focusing on automation technologies and image processing during his studies. These days, his expertise is primarily put to work in research and development at Crop Science: “Here in Frankfurt, I collaborate very closely with the biological research areas. But the results we come up with are also taken over into chemical research, where the molecules under investigation are then optimized and developed further.”

Intelligent image processing
How big is the plant? What proportion of it is green? What stress factors are visible? Which metabolites have collected on the surface? How does the water balance look? And how does the thermal transfer function? Intelligent image processing extracts a range of parameters that make the condition of the plant visible, allowing researchers to draw conclusions about the plant’s performance.

But before that can happen, all of the extensive information gathered from the experiments has to be evaluated. “We prepare the collected data systematically, putting it into a useful form for our colleagues at Crop Science,” says Kolb. To do this in the past, one would have had to rely far more on the existing substance library. But the number of potential candidates stored there numbers in the millions. If one wanted to put all of those to the test out in the open field, complete with corresponding repetitions, “then you would need to have more than half the globe available as a testing ground,” Nina Schwalb points out. She has no doubt whatsoever that the significance of phenotyping and the possibilities it offers will continue to become more and more important.

Kolb agrees with her: “The development is happening tremendously fast. In future, with new imaging technologies and sensors, higher levels of automation, larger data quantities and ever-improving networking, we will have a considerably wider range of opportunities available to us in research and development, and be able to deliver correspondingly more valuable contributions and results.”

And Dr. Ingo Gaida, head of Enabling Technologies at Bayer Technology Services, adds that, “The collaboration in Frankfurt is an outstanding example of how it is possible to successfully adapt new digital technology solutions to meet industrial requirements, and to work in a fully integrated way with the research sites.“

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