Home Applications & Case Studies Improving crops with laser beams and 3D printing

Improving crops with laser beams and 3D printing

One example of how new technologies can be used in 21st century plant breeding is a recently published research paper that combines laser scanning and 3D printing to create a detailed 3D model of a sugar beet plant.

Traditionally, plant phenotyping – the science of accurately recording plant characteristics – has been based on time-consuming, manual measurements. Today, these processes are increasingly automated, supported by advanced sensor technologies and machine learning. These technologies record parameters such as size, fruit quality, leaf shape and growth rates. Automated systems can often gather complex information about a plant that is difficult for humans to determine on a large scale.

A key aspect of this sensor-based breeding is the availability of precise reference materials. The sensors require data on a “standard plant” that includes all relevant characteristics, including three-dimensional properties such as leaf angle. A physical model offers clear advantages over purely digital or two-dimensional representations. For example, it can be used as a reference and internal control instance in a greenhouse or test field under real plants.

Jonas Bömer explains, “In the field of three-dimensional plant phenotyping, the referencing of utilized sensor systems, computer algorithms and captured morphological parameters represents a challenging yet fundamentally important task. The application of additive manufacturing technologies for the generation of reproducible reference models presents a novel opportunity to develop standardized methodologies for objective and precise referencing, thereby benefiting both scientific research and practical plant breeding.”

The new 3D-printed model of a sugar beet plant was developed with these applications in mind. The print files are freely accessible, enabling researchers worldwide to create exact copies of the reference model. This promotes the comparability of research results and facilitates the application of the method even in resource-poor environments, such as developing countries.

Jonas Bömer and colleagues from the Institute for Sugar Beet Research (Göttingen) and the University of Bonn used LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to collect the precise data for the realistic model. A real sugar beet plant was scanned with a laser from twelve different angles. After processing the data, the model was created using a commercial 3D printer and tested for use in the lab and field.

Data scientist Chris Armit adds, “The value in a printable 3D model is that you can print multiple copies, one per field of crops. As a low-cost phenotyping strategy, where the major cost is the LIDAR scanner, it would be fantastic to see this approach tested on other crops such as rice or African orphan crops, where there is a need for low-cost phenotyping solutions.”

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