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Sensor Pots (Pots-Capteurs): a prize-winning innovation

INRA's High-Throughput Plant Phenotyping Platform can analyse genetic variability in large series of genotypes as a function of different environmental scenarios. An innovative measurement device, the “Sensor Pots”, is actually integrated with the plants in their pots and thus follows them as they move through the platform on the conveyor belts.

Pot-Capteur sur un convoyeur de la plateforme de Phénotypage à Haut Débit de Dijon.. © inra, Arnaud COFFIN
Updated on 05/24/2013
Published on 05/24/2013

Sensor Pots (Pots-Capteurs): a prize-winning innovation

INRA's High-Throughput Plant Phenotyping Platform in Dijon was designed to enable both the development and the implementation of innovative techniques in to analyse the expression of plant genes.  The platform can analyse genetic variability in large series of genotypes as a function of different environmental scenarios.  To achieve these analyses, the plants are constantly being moved through the platform on conveyor belts.  These constant movements generate numerous constraints to which Arnaud Coffin, a technician in the Joint Research Unit for Agroecology, has found a solution, thanks to an innovative system of “Sensor Pots” (Pots-Capteurs).  For this discovery, Campbell Scientific has awarded him its Innovation Prize.


The high-throughput Phenotyping Platform

The High-Throughput Plant Phenotyping Platform (PPHD) at the INRA Centre in Dijon is based in a complex that comprises a total of 400 m² of greenhouses, 80 m² of climate-controlled chambers and 700 m² of other buildings.  In the greenhouses, 250 m² are devoted to automated phenotyping using conveyor belts.   The modularity of these greenhouses means that experiments can be performed under a variety of climatic scenarios that are representative of probable changes to our climate.  The Platform permits the production of biological units (from seeds to plants) and their automated characterisation in a non-destructive manner, controlled by robots and cameras.  This enables the establishment of statistical correlations between traits and the genes that govern them.  It is therefore essential to be able to precisely measure cultivation conditions as near as possible to the plant.  The different parameters involved in plant growth include: air temperature, air relative moisture content and photosynthetically active radiation.


Conveyor belts to move the plants

The greenhouses and climate-controlled chambers dedicated to phenotyping are equipped with conveyor belts that constantly move the plants within the different units.  This enables: i) homogenisation of their cultivation conditions, ii) the precise control of plant nutrition, and iii) transfer of the plants to where they will be phenotyped.  Because plants are constantly on the move within the greenhouses, the characterisation of environmental conditions (temperature, light, moisture) – necessarily heterogeneous within these buildings – is problematic.  Spatialised environmental characterisation in the greenhouses responds insufficiently to the need for characterisation of the microclimate in the context of a mobile system.  For this reason, Arnaud Coffin, a Research Technician specialised in scientific instrumentation at INRA, has developed innovative devices that can record over time all the environmental conditions in which plants will develop and grow.  The measurement device is actually integrated with the plants in their pots and thus follows them as they move on the conveyor belts.


Constraints and solutions 

Using measurement devices on moving conveyor belts generates a variety of constraints.  The first concerns managing the weight (about 4 kg) and bulk of the measurement device.  To achieve this, it is necessary to use light materials (PVC and aluminium) and also to optimise the positioning of devices within the system. Another constraint is the energy autonomy of each measurement device.  Indeed, it is necessary to record environmental data independently over a time step that is sufficiently long not to require recharging of the batteries and thus immobilisation of the system.  Arnaud Coffin has obviated this problem by using battery-charged components that use little energy. The most important constraint is to be able to connect the data loggers without having to remove them from the conveyor belts.  The solution found by Arnaud Coffin was a radio module.  He has taken account of the size and number of cultivation units by constructing four devices, which are called Sensor Pots.


Sensor Pots, an innovative system 

Strongly motivated by the development of a prototype that would enable the automation of measurements, Arnaud Coffin worked with Campbell Scientific to produce the Sensor Pots, as this company's products would provide him with an appropriate technological solution.  Each device consists in a data logger (CR1000), a temperature and relative humidity sensor (CS215) and a radiation sensor (quantum sensor PAR-SKP215).  Because plant heights may vary, the sensors are fixed on an adjustable bracket.  Data are collected and recorded on a computer via a radio module (RF-416).  Arnaud Coffin has designed the data acquisition program so as to optimise both the number of measurements each day and the electrical consumption of the system.  He has also defined the  radio connection protocol for each of the devices.


The Campbell Scientific Innovation Prize

Founded in 1974 and based in Logan, Utah (USA), Campbell Scientific specialises in the manufacture of data acquisition instrumentation for agricultural research, and the control of environmental, hydrological and meteorological parameters.  Campbell Scientific France was set up in 1993, and its 20th anniversary will be marked by the award of its Innovation Prize to Arnaud Coffin in the presence of Paul Campbell, President of the Campbell Scientific Group, and Christophe Salon, Scientific Director of the PPHD.

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