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Speeding Up Potato Breeding


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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - or ‘drones’, as they are widely known - are in use nowadays for many different purposes, from defence to filmmaking and meteorology, and almost everything in between.

However, we might soon see them overflying crop fields with a very different purpose: a joint project by the James Hutton Institute, the University of Dundee and Survey Solutions Scotland is investigating the potential of drones for speeding up the development of new potato varieties.

Potato breeding is not an easy task, due to the complexity of the crop’s genetic system, yet significant progress has been made in the last century, notably for resistance and quality traits. Recent developments in genomics have radically altered the landscape for conducting genetic analysis, and have great prospects for impacting significantly on crop improvement.

Dr Ankush Prashar, part of the James Hutton Institute’s Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilization research theme, said: “With the onset of climate change and increasing unpredictability across the UK, improved adaptation and yield responses of potato crops require accurate measurement of crop development under different climate scenarios. This evaluation relies on a combination of 'visual selection' as well as extensive and detailed genetic assessment, performed over several tuber generations.

“Traits routinely assessed include yield, dry matter and multiple quality and resistance attributes. What is striking is that very few traits are measured in the field, and there is no systematic evaluation of traits such as canopy development and architecture, leaf area, responses to water and nutrient stress, and so it is impossible to estimate the effects of these variables on overall crop performance. It is possible that these traits may be highly correlated with yield or other important traits normally assessed after harvest.”

Dr Prashar, in collaboration with Dr Hamlyn Jones from the University of Dundee and commercial partner Survey Solutions Scotland, is using a Trimble UX5 Aerial Imaging rover equipped with ground-based panoramic sensors to explore the feasibility of using 3D imaging for comprehensive assessment of complex traits like yield.

Jock Souter, from Survey Solutions Scotland, commented: “We are very excited to be partnering the James Hutton Institute in this innovative project. The UX5 aerial imaging rover and the V10 360° terrestrial imaging rover deliver a comprehensive photogrammetric and geospatial dataset which the James Hutton scientists can use to assess the plant growth characteristics. Who’d have thought the humble tattie could be so interesting?”

The UAV uses the latest sensor and imaging technologies to collect large volumes of ‘in field’ data at different developmental stages, to potentially increase both the efficiency of potato breeding and crop monitoring programmes.

Trimble software is being used to create the mosaics by photogrammetric processing of both aerial and ground-based data, and will help monitor crop growth, development and final yield.

“This technological platform will form a useful basis for a well-informed precision management practice. When combined with optimized breeding schemes this technology has the potential to substantially accelerate the development of new varieties for resilient and sustainable agriculture,” Dr Prashar added.

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