Earthworms know a great deal about what goes on underground. Moving their way through roots, soil, and water, they know it all. Unfortunately for us and crop scientists, we can't ask worms for this information.
In fact, little is still known about how soil and roots interact. That's why a team of crop scientists from Cornell University in the U.S. has won two different three-year grants to develop worm-like robots that'll swim beneath the earth.
The plan is for them to gather data on soil properties, water, soil microbiome, and how roots grow.
The project will focus on maize and the team will develop small earthworm-like robots that span one to two foot (30.5 to 61 centimeters) long, and that will analyze the soil of agricultural lands, reports Inceptive Minds.
The point is to understand what happened underground so as to directly improve food productivity and security, the Cornell team explains.
These little creatures will have a structure that resembles bore drills and move in a peristaltic motion, just like worms.
"The front loosens up the dirt and the back pushes forward and presses that dirt into a wall of a tunnel," Robert Shepherd, associate professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering at Cornell, said.
The plan is for the robot to collect continuous data up and down an entire row of maize.
The way a robot moves through soil says a lot about the soil density and compactness, and the team will try out a number of sensors and strategies. Moreover, these little robots will be kitted out with small temperature and humidity sensors.
The team is also thinking about using fiber optic cables to check out other measurements, such as direct imaging of roots, and measurements of excitation and emission wavelengths of soil microorganisms and root chemistries.
By gathering all this data, the team would then be able to create a predictive model to combine the characteristics below and above the ground surrounding crops.
Another focus of the project will be on evaluating how climate change affects plants.