6 mins read 29 Jun 2021

USQ receives funding for crop monitoring system for space

The Moon to Mars initiative has provided funding to the University of Southern Queensland to develop software and sensors to monitor plant health in prototype plant habitats on long duration space missions. The system will require little to no interaction from the crew and is hoped to supply plant based food production for space missions to Mars.  

The team from the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Agricultural Engineering (from left) Dr Cheryl McCarthy, Professor Peter Brett, Professor Craig Baillie and Dr Jacob Humpal has successfully been awarded a Moon to Mars Demonstrator Feasibility Grant through the Australian Space Agency to develop launch-ready software that will use machine vision to detect early stress in plants being grown onboard space flights. Credit - USQ

The Australian Space Agency has recently awarded a number of grants as part of the Moon to Mars Initiative. These grants are designed to support a variety of endeavours to prove the feasibility of their programs as part of NASA’s inspirational undertaking to reach Mars via the Moon.  

The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has been awarded $200,000 as part of this initiative to provide healthy fresh food to astronauts living and working on and around the Moon and on the journey to Mars. 

Whilst the quality and taste of the food that astronauts eat today has improved since Yuri Gagarin first went into space, growing crops in space is still a huge undertaking. On that first human spaceflight, Gagarin had to eat pureed beef, liver and vegetables from a tube, and whilst that might be ok for a trip of fewer than 2 hours, long-duration trips to the Moon and Mars will require something more appealing. 

“The announcement is about some technology that we've been developing in the last few years, particularly in broadacre cropping systems, and looking to apply that to future farming systems in space,” said Professor Craig Baille, Director of the Centre for Agricultural Engineering at USQ. 

“So developing machine vision technology that can look at a plant, understand how a plant is performing and provide that feedback to an astronaut in space so that we can ensure food security for those sorts of long-range missions.”

The feasibility study will look at developing launch-ready software that will use machine vision to detect early stress in plants that are grown onboard space flights. 

“[The software will provide] automatic analysis to detect when plants are stressed. This will be focussing on pre-visual symptoms and will assist the growth and management of plants in space,” said Dr Cheryl McCarthy who is a senior research fellow at USQ, studying machine vision for agriculture. 

Machine Vision - Keeping an Eye on plants

Growing plants on Earth and in space creates a number of challenges - Right - The team from USQ, Dr Jacob Humpal (left), Professor Peter Brett, Dr Cheryl McCarthy and Professor Craig Baillie (right) (Credit - USQ) Left - Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins of NASA shows off radish plants growing inside the Columbus laboratory module's Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) before collecting leaf samples for analysis.(Credit - NASA)

Automated monitoring of plants (machine vision), looks at and assesses the condition of certain aspects of the plant, such as foliage wilting, spectral reflectance, and growth parameters. This assessment is then used to provide the appropriate irrigation and fertigation. 

There is currently a large amount of research being conducted into how machine vision can support the farming industry, in so-called Precision Farming. It is hoped that the process of precision farming - acquiring images, analysing and evaluating the information and communication of the outcome to an automated system, will improve farming outcomes. It is the software that USQ is looking to develop for use in space. 

“Our research project will develop machine vision-based technology to automatically interpret plant stress signals so fresh vegetables and other leafy greens grown at NASA’s two Veggie units and the larger Advanced Plant Habitat currently onboard the International Space Station (ISS) can be better monitored for increased food safety, and food options,” said Professor Baille. 

"We are very successful in agriculture and so when we start looking at space, it's an interesting challenge. There will be some differences, but there's a lot of things that we are used to that we should be able to apply very well,” said Professor Peter Brett, robotics and automation lead researcher at the centre.  

According to Dr Jason Humble, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Agricultural Engineering, the funding will allow the university to progress the technology that will ensure that the astronauts on deep space missions have access to fresh food, such as missions to Mars. Dr Humble’s involvement in the program will see him developing and refining the technology so that it works with equipment currently and soon to be available in the space community. 

“Those technologies are machine vision systems, camera systems and feedback systems to allow us to manipulate and monitor plants in space with limited astronaut input,” said Dr Humpal.

Growing Food In Space

In 2015 the astronauts on board the ISS got their first taste of food plants grown in space. Credit - NASA

Growing food in space is an important area of research for NASA as it looks towards longer human space flight missions. The Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie is a specialised growing system onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Veggie utilises a “pillow” made of a clay-based growth media and fertiliser and a bank of light-emitting diodes (LED) which produce a spectrum of light ideal for plant growth. It is this light that makes Veggie look pink as the plants reflect more green light and absorb more of the red and blue wavelengths. But Veggie requires monitoring by the astronauts onboard. 

According to Dr McCarthy, “the sensing technology is important because there is a need to develop a sustainable food supply for deep space missions. Presently resupply of food is done by additional missions and there is a need for plants to be producing food in a sustainable way. The sensing systems will enable plant stress to be detected automatically.” 

The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is another growth chamber onboard the ISS but is a fully enclosed and automated system using cameras for monitoring. APH completed its first test run in 2018, growing Arabidopsis thaliana and dwarf wheat. Space can have some interesting effects on plants, such as reducing plant growth. It is these impacts that can lead to differences in monitoring the plants in space as opposed to on Earth.

“The technology we are developing will be used to pick up plant signals about stress for example from moisture stress or from pathogens which the astronauts might not be able to see by eye and the astronauts may not be able to manage those plants, as well as a machine system, could do,” said Dr McCarthy. 

“Space, you imagine not to have a lot of leafy plants in it. Our sensing system will enable this barren landscape to be filled with wonderful vibrant plants, that our sensing system will be maintaining the health of,” she concluded.