Near the University of Georgia Griffin campus, Jordan Knapp-Wilson walks into a peach orchard equipped with a myriad of laser-equipped scanners, targets and tripods. He’ll spend the next few hours using data collection tools with the potential to change the peach industry.
These small laser scanners enable Knapp-Wilson to accomplish in a few hours what would normally take weeks. Using a 360-degree camera and terrestrial light detection and ranging, he can count and map each branch on every tree to create a three-dimensional image of the orchard.
“Counting these by hand is really difficult. I’ve done it before, but by the 300th branch, you’re pretty over it. Scanning allows us to rapidly collect phenotypic data about these trees, both things you can see with your eyes and things you cannot,” Knapp-Wilson said.
Knapp-Wilson, a doctoral student in the Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, explained that the technology does more than create an attractive, novel 3D image.
The 3D scanners allow researchers to rapidly collect large amounts of phenotypic data, something known in horticulture and plant breeding as high-throughput plant phenotyping, or HTP.
These technologies make it possible to quantify, analyze and record nuanced differences in plant growth and morphology that can vary from tree to tree.
Ultimately, Knapp-Wilson and other researchers in the field hope to use data from HTP technologies to inform their work in plant genetics.
The goal is to create peach trees that are more readily accessible to the automated harvesters and high-density orchards of the future.
“Automation will be here — trials are currently underway in a lot of different areas. They’re slow, but the technology will be there maybe 20 years in the future. The real question is this: Will the trees themselves be ready?” Knapp-Wilson asked.
Georgia’s peach trees are big, robust trees that produce a large amount of fruit, but they are notoriously challenging in a number of ways.
Peaches themselves are very sensitive and prone to bruising, an issue which can be exacerbated by the tree’s branch architecture. Growers prune the trees’ natural limb organization into formations known as training systems. The training systems favored by peach growers in the Southeast focus on creating large, vigorous trees with high yields, but that also take up greater amounts of space.
Future orchard designs are trending toward high-density models with more trees in a smaller overall space. These high-density orchards have their pros and cons, but one advantage they offer is uniformity, a trait that is ideal for automated pruners and peach harvesters, Knapp-Wilson explained.
The current model of robust and densely branched trees grown in the Southeast poses obstacles to automation.
“These large trees are known for being quite difficult to prune, and we’re predicting some pretty meaningful challenges where automation is concerned if we aren’t able to produce a tree with a more favorable branch architecture,” he said. “In order to meet automation standards in the future, we need to select for trees that will make that easier.”
Since coming to UGA to pursue his doctoral degree, Knapp-Wilson has been part of a team hoping to change the face of peach trees in Georgia, one small genotypic selection at a time.
By mapping the branch architecture of current peach tree varieties, researchers are hoping to identify specific regions of the genome that affect branching in order to select for favorable traits, advancing certain lines of peach trees better suited to the future automation the industry hopes to see.
This work brings together a number of cutting-edge technologies and disciplines including agrorobotics, engineering, computational biology, phenomics and genomics, among others. As a result, the team at UGA isn’t working alone on this project — they have enlisted the help of engineering experts from the Agricultural Technology Research Program at Georgia Tech, located about 45 minutes away from UGA-Griffin.
“We’re sharing this information with our friends at Georgia Tech so they can start using this data in their work on automation. Students, many of whom have never been in a peach orchard before, are able to come down and join us for data collection and see just what the trees they’re working on look like in the real world,” Knapp-Wilson said.
This partnership, and its push toward increased automation in peach production, seeks to address some of the most pressing issues in the industry, including current and future concerns about labor in peach orchards. Peaches are challenging to harvest, and with anticipated changes to our climate, producers may find it more difficult to harvest their crops as laborers are limited in the time they can spend in the field due to increased temperatures.
Knapp-Wilson, who holds a dual degree in molecular cellular biology and plant science from the University of Arizona, Tucson, grew up surrounded by agriculture and its influence, particularly from his grandfather, who encouraged Knapp-Wilson to learn more about how things grow, how to foster that growth and what it meant to be a steward of the land. But he never imagined that he’d find himself in the middle of a Georgia peach orchard with a 3D scanner.
“I really ended up here by chance. I won an undergraduate Borlaug Scholarship award, which enabled me to visit Callaway Gardens here in Georgia. It was there that I met my major professor Dario Chavez and learned about the work that he was doing with peaches,” said Knapp-Wilson, who has risen to the challenges of working with Georgia’s signature fruit.