Drones for breeding better white spruce

Dr. Ingo Ensminger of the University of Toronto and Dr. Nathalie Isabel of Forest and Environmental Genomics at Natural Resources Canada are partnering with PrecisionHawk, an unmanned aerial system company. This academic-industry partnership will develop and deploy a software application that will enable breeders and forest managers to aerially assess tree phenology and performance during both the growing season and in response to pressures such as water deficits.

The field of tree genomics has seen unprecedented advances over the past decade. A suite of next generation genomic resources for improved tree breeding and selection will soon become available to breeders and forest managers, thanks to a project led by Drs. Ingo Ensminger (University of Toronto) and Nathalie Isabel (Forest and Environmental Genomics at Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service Quebec region) in partnership with PrecisionHawk.

An investment by Ontario Genomics through its Pre-Commercialization Business Development Fund (PBDF) will support rapid deployment of a software application to market, that will allow users to determine performance of individual trees and forest stands and to assess their phenology, such as onset of the growing season, end of the growing season, or water deficit during the growing season.

A team of scientists will use already established white spruce progeny trials in Quebec and Ontario and survey entire populations using a drone carrying optical sensors for leaf spectral measurements. Aerial sampling will be paralleled by leaf level sampling on subsets of seedlings on the ground (30-40 genotypes multiple times per site and year) with hand held leaf spectral sensors and by leaf level assessments of phenology, plant water status and pigments. The team will then determine how phenology and plant water status are reflected by leaf optical properties and develop algorithms for calculating leaf indices to infer genotypic variation in phenology and leaf responses to water limitations.

This survey data will be available to partner company, Precisionhawk, to create a software application, that will be available to end users via the Algorithm Marketplace, the proprietary “app store” for drone data analysis.

These tools are expected to accelerate breeding cycles, through an innovative approach for large-scale phenotyping of tree responses to drought, monitor phenology, and assess differences between genotypes in large-scale field experiments.

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