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The ‘Flight to Vitality’ project: A fresh perspective on potato growth

The ‘Flight to Vitality’ project: A fresh perspective on potato growth

Neil Budko is an associate professor in the Numerical Analysis Group at TU Delft in the Netherlands. In this article he and his colleagues’ involvement in the “Flight to Vitality” seed potato project is explained in detail.

With the Flight to Vitality project, HZPC and Averis Seeds want to jointly develop an objective test with which the vitality of batches of seed potatoes can be measured and predicted.

The soil in the north of the Netherlands is especially well-suited for growing seed potatoes. Farmers buy these seeds from the producers in order to grow potatoes for actual consumption. Both producers and farmers would like to know the vitality of seed potatoes prior to planting.

‘Vitality is defined as the proportion of seed potatoes that emerges from the soil and their uniformity of growth after emergence,’ Budko explains. ‘The current standard for determining their vitality is to pick a bunch of potatoes, put them in a bucket for a week, and see how many become rotten. You would think this methodology is easy to beat, but it is actually very hard to come up with a systematic procedure.’

This is what the Flight to Vitality project is about, which also involves the two seed potato companies and Utrecht University. ‘As the major contributor, we are responsible for all the math and data processing during the project.’

‘At the end of this project, we want to be able to just look at a batch of seed potatoes, measure the few aspects that we figured out to be important, and exactly tell you the batch’s vitality,’ Budko says.

To determine these important aspects, the researchers designed a very broad search, focusing on the performance of six potato varieties in all kinds of conditions. Tubers were simultaneously planted in various countries and soils as well as in two custom-build climate-control rooms – a cold and a warm room, each having a dry and a wet section.

For each batch of tubers, a lot of data are collected and stored: genetics, microbiomics, storage conditions, organic and inorganic constitution. Once planted detailed weather data are collected as well. Camera-equipped drones are used to monitor plant growth – when do they first appear above ground and how do they continue to develop.

Acquisition of images at wavelengths outside the spectrum of visible light allows the researchers to also track changes in the biochemical composition of the plants.

‘It’s a typical inverse problem,’ Budko says. ‘We observe the measured vitality, and now we want to determine what caused these effects. We get thousands of signatures, each consisting of thousands of data points. Gigantic data matrices.’


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