High-tech farming

For more than 10,000 years humans have been farming on this planet. Over time farmers have developed tools such as the tractor and fertilizer to make the practice more efficient. Now a team at Pennsylvania State University applied research laboratory is using 3D imaging, machine learning algorithms and the power of a laser to take farming to a whole new level.


For more than 10,000 years, humans have been farming on this planet.

Over time, farmers have developed tools such as the tractor and fertilizer to make the practice more efficient.

Now a team at the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory is using 3-D imaging, machine-learning algorithms, and the power of a laser to take farming to a whole new level.

Here's a look.

A laser isn't a typical tool for the agriculture industry, but Ben Hall and his State College-based company, L4IS, don't have a typical origin story.

I'm not a biologist.

I actually abhorred biology in high school, although I'm very ashamed of that now.

I think it's fascinating.

Hall was working with lasers at the Penn State Applied Research Lab when crop scientists came to him with a question.

Could lasers help them cut samples from a root?

What they were doing over in the Horticulture Department was they were cutting these under a microscope -- really, really thin, little slices, about 100 microns, which is about the thickness of a piece of paper, you know, with a razor blade.

You have a lot of human error, crushing it, tearing it, cutting it crooked, too thick.

But it's a very slow process, and they would end up on the usable slices, which they'd get about three to five per hour.

Not only did the laser work, it could churn out 11 samples a second.

The collaboration led to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

That led to another opportunity.

The grant had me cutting like 2,000 of these roots and putting the little pieces into a vial and then trudging across campus to give it to them.

But I was just thinking, 'If I could just image it here, then I wouldn't have to walk across campus, and I could e-mail the files.'

So instead of cutting samples, Hall decided to destroy one by slowly pushing it through the laser sheet and recording it with a high-magnification lens.

And it was the next morning.

I was thinking, like, 'Well, each frame in this video represents essentially a slice of this object.'

If I could just find a way to take out the frames and stack those frames up, you know, be able to reconstruct the three-dimensional root.

By the time I was finished eating breakfast, I found two programs to do it that were free, and there in front of me was this rotating three-dimensional model of a root.

The images you are looking at were all created the same way.

Hall and his partners patented the process.

It's called Laser Ablation Tomography.

It creates a high-resolution 3-D digital structure by photographing the original sample as a laser vaporizes it, slice by slice.

This is a scan created from the back half of a yellow jacket.

It shows subtle textures in connective tissue.

You can even peel off individual layers for a virtual dissection, revealing internal structures and organs.

This is the largest image Hall has produced -- a hummingbird from beak to tail.

These are pretty pictures, and videos are interesting and scientifically valuable a little bit.

But what's more important is making sense of this, is extracting the data out of it.

The speed and accuracy of Laser Ablation is already helping scientists analyze plant structure to interpret DNA.

Default program.

They'll grow 500 plants with gene 'A' turned off and one with gene 'A' turned on, and it'll scan through those.

It will get the data, and then we apply machine-learning algorithms and pattern recognition to then map out these different things that they want to see.

The technology is already being used by researchers at Penn State to help develop crops that can grow in dry, low-nutrient soils.

It's also helping them understand complicated interactions.

This sample shows the root, the soil, and everything in it.

The bright colors you see correspond to different chemicals.

Yeah, to the legs.

Analysis like this could help farmers cut back on pesticides and fertilizer, but Hall thinks there are even deeper discoveries on the horizon -- molecular discoveries that could unlock clues about the building blocks of life.

It's just like letters of the alphabet.

There's 26 of them, and there's probably a similar amount of chemical elements that we're constructed out of.

But then the words that they form, you know, there are 10,000 words.

We have 26 letters, but the way they're put together is important.

So looking at and trying to determine which one of those 10,000 you're looking at, that's the harder part, but it's, you know, it's a frontier.

It's really cool to try to figure that out.