The machine consists of a computer, the radar, a battery and an antenna that operates at different frequencies, he said. These frequencies are the same as some older cell phones operated on. The unit sends a radio signal into the ground and then receives it back within seconds, and this allows a three-dimensional picture of the below-ground environment to be created on the computer.

“The frequency is able to detect roots since the amount of moisture is more concentrated within them than in the surrounding soil,” Thompson said. “This same technology has been used to find tree roots, but obviously there is a big difference between tree roots and those of wheat.”

The terrestrial laser scanner creates very high resolution 3-D images, only it works above ground utilizing a small computer and a laser to shoot across a field as far as 300 meters with 4-millimeter accuracy, he said. To put that into perspective, it would be able to see the differences between two wheat plants from three football fields away.

“That’s a much more accurate measurement than we’ve had in the past using a yardstick or ruler,” Thompson said. “Typically, we walk through our nurseries looking for characteristics or traits in a plant that give it an advantage over others. We take plant height measurements, which can be related to yield or performance, or we take an overall agronomic score.”

AgriLife Research has many nurseries across the state, he said, and as “we spend hours looking at the plants with a naked eye, we become biased to different traits we are scoring. The bottom line is you just can’t see enough of the diversity between the plants or see the difference because they are so minuscule between the lines.

“This opens the doors for a technology that allows us to take data both rapidly and accurately,” Thompson said. “That’s where these tools come into play.”

The terrestrial-laser scanner uses a green wavelength that is safe for anyone around it, he said. The laser captures two or three images from different sides of a plot to reduce shadows, which are then joined together in the computer to produce a 3-D point cloud.

This provides breeders with a whole new set of options. A key option is not using the destructive methods that are typical of taking above-ground biomass measurements.

“We wind up killing the plant and damaging the population under traditional methods,” he said. “But the laser allows us to set up outside the field and take these measurements multiple times throughout the growing season so we can evaluate lines repeatedly and not have to remove them or destroy them in the process.”

Another option is to look at larger populations, Thompson said.

“The more plants you can look at, the greater the chances you have to find something that is going to be very productive in the field for a farmer,” he said.