A new project to improve cultivation of the bioenergy crop Miscanthus will involve Cranfield University academics. Miscanthus is a perennial grass plant which is commonly established by planting root components called rhizomes. The OMENZ (Optimising Miscanthus Establishment through improved mechanisation and data capture to meet Net Zero targets) project is led by Miscanthus specialist Terravesta and involves various partners including Cranfield University, Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), Energene Seeds Ltd, Liverpool John Moores University, TJSS Ltd, University of Lincoln, and Ystumtec Ltd.

OMENZ will improve the entire Miscanthus establishment process, including approaches to planting material, field preparation, innovative agri-tech, new planting techniques, and cutting-edge technologies to monitor establishment in the field.

Government’s Biomass programme – and where Cranfield fits in

The funding for the project was announced as part of the Government’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, which seeks to contribute to 2050 net zero targets. The OMENZ initiative was awarded £3.3m of funding. This project works to ensure biomass feedstocks such as Miscanthus are available to fuel the emerging bio-economy.

Cranfield academics will be responsible for developing artificial intelligence (AI) methods for monitoring the establishment and growth of Miscanthus plants using drones. Alongside, work on rhizome quality pre-planting, soil conditions and root zone optimisation to increase establishment success and the subsequent yield.  

Optimising decisions using drones

Dr Toby Waine, Senior Lecturer in Applied Remote Sensing at Cranfield University, said: “It is exciting to be leading the OMENZ work on monitoring the establishment of Miscanthus using drones. By using technologies such as AI we can fully automate the detection of plants and optimise agronomic decisions.

“Information derived from the drones will also support the wider project objectives: to improve the quality of planting material, testing of biological treatments, seed bed preparation and streamline the planting process. And once the crop is established, the remote sensing will continue to help improve crop performance.”

“It’s also great to work with the industrial and academic partners in OMENZ, as well as my soil and plant science colleagues Dr Rob Simmons and Dr M. Carmen Alamar, who are contributing their expertise on soil-root carbon and rhizome pre-treatments.”

Terravesta’s science and technology director, Dr Michael Squance, said that growth of the plant was vital for net zero targets. “The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget report states that to reach net zero, 700,000 hectares of bioenergy crops need to be planted by 2050. That’s 30,000 hectares a year starting in 2030.”

“The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is funding projects like this through NZIP, the ‘Net Zero Innovation Portfolio’, and it’s our aim to increase the scale and quality of Miscanthus establishment in the UK.”

About Cranfield University

Agrifood has been a key strategic theme at Cranfield University for over 40 years. We have internationally recognised expertise across both domestic and international food supply chains from primary food production, inputs - soil, plants and water, through to point of sale, waste reduction and applied informatics.

Students work closely with our partners in industry, Government or the NGO sector. We understand our clients’ challenges because more than 80% of the University’s business comes from sources other than Government. Most of our academic staff have spent considerable portions of their career in industry or Government, and are especially solution-oriented. We delight in assembling pan-University teams of experts from across our skill sets, often in collaboration with other Universities, and consultants, to meet challenges that fall outside the conventional academic disciplines.