Iowa State University faculty members are developing a new facility that will use a specially designed robot to gather unprecedented amounts of data on the growth of plants under different environmental conditions.

The project was funded recently by a $929,773 grant from the National Science Foundation. ISU personnel plan to have a prototype of the plant-growth facility next year and a completed facility with as many as eight growth chambers in three years.

“Everything has to be created from the ground up,” said Steven Whitham, a professor of plant pathology and microbiology and the primary investigator of the project.

The specialized growth chambers will be built by Percival Scientific, a company based in Perry, Ia., said Whitham, the director of the ISU Center for Plant Responses to Environmental Stresses.

Researchers will control environmental conditions such as temperature, moisture, light and carbon dioxide concentration in each chamber, which will simulate the effects of climate change on the early development of plants, Whitham said.

The ISU team is calling the concept the “Enviratron,” and if that sounds like a word you might hear in a science fiction story, there’s a good reason.

And that reason is robots.

A robotic rover, armed with various sensors, will travel from chamber to chamber to measure and record plant performance under different environmental conditions.

Automatic sliding doors installed in each growth chamber will allow the rover to enter each chamber.