Agriculture, one of the most essential and ancient economic, social, and environmental activities of human beings, has already joined the number of sectors that benefit from big data and data analysis. In this context, the research group on Ecophysiology of Mediterranean Crops of the University of Barcelona works on the development of technologies to assess plant behaviour. "We make statistical calculations and develop software with the objective of extracting as much relevant information from plants as possible in an easy way," explains Dr. Josep Lluís Araus, the head of the research group.
The group can monitor crop growth and behaviour against different factors, such as diseases, drought conditions, presence of pollutants, and absence of fertilizers, among others. To do so they use aerial platforms like, for instance, drones equipped with different remote sensing systems. "We have different types of sensors that we incorporate in our drones. Thermal sensors, for example, allow us to visualize plant temperature; the better the hydric status of a plant is, the cooler its temperature," says Dr. Araus. Currently, the group is working on the development of much more precise parameters that will allow them to count the number of ears of a cereal and calculate the potential yield of the crop for that year. "This way we will be able to predict the price a product will gain in the market, which will obviously have economic significance," explains Dr. Araus. In the not too distant future it will also be possible to predict the behaviour of plants on the basis of their molecular information, which will have a very positive impact on the genetic improvement of crops. "To achieve this goal, it is necessary to establish a clear correlation between the plant’s DNA and its behaviour in connection with average environmental factors. Studying this behaviour—that is, phenotyping—will let us overcome the bottleneck that currently limits the genetic improvement of crops," he concludes.
The research group has collaborated with various national and international institutions, major seed and plant variety producers, phytosanitary companies, and farms on comprehensive crop monitoring, plant phenotyping, climate change, and contamination.