ARCO, Idaho — John Hess can make a case that his farm is the birthplace of precision agriculture.
In the 1990s, Hess was already harvesting his potatoes in a tractor that drove itself, when the concept was still on the outer fringes of science fiction.
The experimental global positioning system that steered his tractor from a gray toolbox stuffed with electronics was the handiwork of scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco. Working under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy, the laboratory is one of three in the West that have been largely unheralded for their involvement in some of the nation’s most significant agricultural break-throughs. Their contributions include advancements in GPS technology, developing drones and remote sensors that allow farmers to detect problems with their crops, charting the DNA of crops and looking for ways to make biofuels more economically feasible.
Matt Anderson, a research engineer with the Idaho National Laboratory, said the project with Hess sought to demonstrate that a low-cost GPS-guidance system was feasible for farming. The laboratory, which partnered with scientists at Utah State University and a small company working for the manufacturer AGCO, used technology developed for NASA’s Mars rover. INL obtained a patent on the GPS technology but left commercialization to private interests.
“We proved it could be done, and we could do it at a low cost,” said Anderson, who helped develop instrumentation for the GPS system. “That was an eye-opener for industry.”
As for Hess, the project helped cut his input costs long before auto-steering was standard issue.
“I understand everybody’s tractor is that way now,” Hess, who farms near Ashton, Idaho, said. He’s proud of his association with the laboratory and its scientists and the advancements they have produced. “The INL is one of the finest groups of scientists the world has ever had.”
Also on Hess’s farm, Anderson said the laboratory’s scientists developed a system for recording the precise locations of grain samples taken during harvest. Analysis of samples was entered into a database to produce a broad field history.
The INL, which developed the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity in 1951, was heavily involved in agricultural research in the 1990s. Anderson said INL had an environmental and engineering mission, and farm ground was considered an important component of the environment.
“We’re the lead lab for nuclear now, but agriculture is still a big part of the INL,” Anderson said.
Helping farmers from the sky
A powerful tool for detecting crop stresses at least five days before they’re visible to the naked eye can now be deployed on unmanned aerial systems — also called drones — thanks to work done at the INL.
Just five years ago, hyperspectral sensors — capable of analyzing a vast portion of the electromagnetic spectrum — weighed more than 300 pounds, Derek Wadsworth, INL robotics and human systems manager, explained. Large aircraft were necessary to haul the heavy instruments aloft for an aerial view.
Working with a private company, INL developed a hyperspectral imager weighing just 8 pounds, small enough to be fitted on a UAS for low-cost data collection.
Wadsworth explained hyperspectral imaging allows researchers to key in on any one of 189 bands of the spectrum to determine which are most pertinent to understanding specific crop conditions. Wadsworth hopes to diagnose “spectral signatures” correlating with field conditions such as water stress and insect pressure.
INL and Idaho State University have launched a multi-year project to develop the tools to analyze those signatures to predict crop stress. They’re taking hyperspectral images of stressed crops in greenhouses, and plan to fly UAVs over Southeast Idaho farm fields for comparison. Participating farmers will grant researchers access to their fields to confirm the accuracy of hyperspectral analysis.
Wadsworth said the greenhouse research is underway, but an application for a special two-year research authorization to fly a UAS outside its airspace is still pending from the Federal Aviation Administration.
He believes the approach will also have applications for measuring snowpack depth and water content, surveying downed timber for fire-prevention and making water-quality assessments.
Wadsworth said INL has researched UAS technology for 15 years and has been a leader in developing self-guided systems.
Researching crop genomes
In a single week in June, the Joint Genome Institute, operated under the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., published separate papers on the sequencing of citrus, bean and eucalyptus genomes.
About 30 percent of the institute’s genetic sequencing research involves selecting for plant biomass that’s easier to break down in producing advanced biofuels made from woody crops or agricultural residues. The institute — funded with $69 million annually from the DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research — also studies drought tolerance and crop resistance to fungi and insects.
The institute also has ongoing research in the Midwest studying soil microorganisms and productivity of virgin soil versus soils that have been in continuous production.
The institute was formed in the late 1990s to accelerate the mapping of the human genome. Spokesman David Gilbert explained the institute shifted its attention in 2003 to plants, fungi, microbes and algae and aids research for about 1,200 collaborators. DOE also has a memorandum of understanding with USDA, which is already using the sequences and DNA markers to aid in breeding new crop varieties.
Gilbert said switchgrass, a focal point of research, can be grown on marginal soils with little water and holds great promise as an advanced biofuel crop.
He explained Lawrence Berkeley’s commitment to agriculture goes back 50 years, to when one of its scientists won the Nobel Prize for characterizing the pathway of plant photosynthesis.
The Idaho National Laboratory is the leading laboratory specializing in overcoming a significant hurdle to advanced biofuel production — the need to extend the shelf life of feedstocks and to make them uniform, light and compact for transporting.
INL has also championed the concept of biomass depots, where biomass would be processed to final specifications required of a refinery and stored in a centralized location for shipping. Kevin Kenney, director of INL’s Biomass Feedstock National User Facility, explained the depot concept is based on the grain cooperative model and could uee existing grain-handling facilities.
At its Biomass Feedstock Process Demonstration Unit, opened in 2011, researchers are learning how to blend and process feedstocks to meet refineries’ specifications, such as cost, quality, ash content, particle size and moisture level. Feedstocks such as corn stover are processed into pellet form, and woody feedstocks are often charred into a charcoal-like product.
“We think this ultimately enables the commoditization of biomass,” Kenney said. “If you can commoditize biomass, you no longer have an entity dependent on its supply radius, which we have today.”
INL scientists have also researched methods of harvesting feedstocks to minimize excess ash from dirt. Industry partners often ask INL to research their own feedstock blends for advanced biofuel production, or to hook a piece of equipment into INL’s demonstration unit for testing.
The unit also tests ways to mill and dry feedstocks more cost effectively.
Making advanced biofuels
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., is among the major users of finished INL feedstocks.
PNNL specializes in converting feedstocks into advanced biofuels and gives INL feedback on performance. PNNL studies the production of jet fuel, as well as diesel fuel for heavy equipment.
Corrine Drennan, manager of PNNL’s bioenergy office portfolio, explained that fuels will still be needed in aircraft and heavy equipment in the future even as the nation’s automotive fleet shifts toward electricity.
To minimize costs of producing biofuels and to add value to biomass that may be produced on farms, PNNL has researched co-products that can be manufactured from the byproducts, such as plastics, soaps and detergents.
Drennan said about five years ago, PNNL developed a chemical derived from glycerine — a byproduct of biodiesel generation — that’s now marketed by Archer Daniels Midland. It has several uses, including as an engine coolant.
“I really don’t think there is enough awareness of everything going on between USDA, DOE, industry and the public,” Drennan said. “DOE’s No. 1 issue is national security, and making sure we have enough food and petrol is part of that equation.”