Bioenergy provides a renewable and environmentally sustainable source of fuel. But current domestic bioenergy production cannot satiate our national energy demands. Our energy-secure future must be fueled by a new generation of high-performance and sustainable bioenergy crops to dramatically increase feedstock yield—without requiring additional inputs such as fertilizer and water.

Energy sorghum is a promising feedstock that can grow as high as 20 feet (6 meters) and can produce over nine tons of biomass per acre over a few months on marginal land. We know the genomes of more than 850 sorghum varieties, but it is difficult to manually collect the data needed to link these genes to traits that improve yield. Now a fleet of robots—developed by TERRA-MEPP—can employ many sensors to monitor large quantities of diverse cultivars throughout the growing season to identify the top-performing plants.

TERRA-MEPP developed two robots to analyze food and bioenergy crops throughout the growing season to identify plants with desirable, heritable traits:

  • TerraMepp: This larger, industrial-strength platform is ideal for exploratory field research to identify novel measurements or to collect precise measurements for calibration. Equip it with heavier, above-the-canopy sensors such as hyperspectral cameras that reveal photosynthetic potential and stress responses.
  • TerraSentia: This compact, lightweight, and autonomous robot works beneath the crop canopy individually or in a fleet to analyze the whole plant, unlike drones, providing real-time data and analytics on plant traits. Translate data to measure early vigor, identify diseases, and estimate biomass production via a cloud-based platform. TerraSentisa has been commercialized by EarthSense, Inc.

This research project was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) from October 2015 to June 2020. For more information, please contact the TERRA-MEPP Project Manager Yun Li at or 217-300-6086.