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January, 28th 2010

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Steve Hamm in

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The scene inside The Plant Accelerator

The scene inside The Plant Accelerator

Much has been written about how big retailers use RFID tags to keep track of product inventory,but now an agricultural research lab in Australia is using the wireless sensors to keep track of experimental plants. The goal: to quickly and efficiently develop new varieties of food crops, such as wheat and barley, that can withstand disease and drought, and thrive even in poor soil conditions.

Using IBM computers designed to conserve energy, the University of Adelaide, in Australia,  has just completed construction on The Plant Accelerator, the largest test facility of its kind in the world. Using an elaborate system of conveyor belts, digital imaging gear, and robotic equipment, technicians can continuously monitor the vitality of up to 2,400 radio-tagged plants, each in its own pot. By linking 3-D images and data to records of each plant’s genetic makeup, researchers can accelerate the process of designing hardier plants–cutting the time it takes to develop a new variety by perhaps 70%.

The new system will provide critical insights for breeding the kinds of crops that could help overcome food shortages in the face of global warming. The new plant varieties could be particularly useful for developing nations in Africa and Asia where over-planting and other poor farming techniques have depleted the soil. They could allow farmers there to increase yields, so these countries could be better able to feed their people.

The facility’s tech staff designed the system with the help of Datacom Systems, an IBM partner based in New Zealand, and uses a software package from LemnaTec, a German company, to control the imaging and analysis system.

Eventually, Accelerator technicians will be equipped with handheld PDAs connected wirelessly to the computer database, allowing them to fetch vital information from facility’s IBM blade servers, which use a fraction of the power of more conventional computers, while they’re examining individual plants. They also plan to add CAT scanners so they get 3-D images of the plants’ roots in addition to stems and leaves.

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