Green fingered amateur gardeners often talk to their plants; now the plants can talk back. Scientists have developed a system that picks up the subtle cues of plant communication helping plant growers to monitor the crop's state of health and will result in optimal environmentally-friendly growing conditions.
Funded under the European Commission's FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) initiative of the IST programme, the PLANTS project sought to develop a unique system that linked plants, technology and people to continuously assess the state of crop health. Using sensors, transmitters and specialist software, the system monitors the state of the crop on a plant-by-plant basis, in near real-time.
Dr Anthony Morrissey at Tyndall National Institute (Ireland) led the project which included partners from University College Cork (Ireland), Computer Technology Institute (CTI, Greece) and Eden Project Ltd (UK).
"You could almost walk away from the crop and let it grow on its own," says Dr Fiona Tooke of the Eden Project, a unique public education facility in the UK's Cornwall region that gathers all the planet's major agricultural systems under a series of spectacular, and immense, plastic domes that function as high tech glasshouses. Eden joined the PLANTS project to help promote, and disseminate the ideas and philosophy behind the project.
The combined presence of plants and artefacts in an environment inhabited by humans set a new computing environment, where the complexity of the interactions between many possibly heterogeneous artefacts and their environment, including plants and humans, could be overcome by developing a technological framework (i.e., system architecture, models and tools) for composing the so-called ubiquitous computing applications.
PLANTS adhered to a broader vision where the virtual (computing) space was seamlessly integrated with the physical environment. One of its main objectives was to develop the necessary software modules, tools and methodologies that enable the efficient and flexible integration of 'augmented' plants and artefacts into ubiquitous computing applications which may range from domestic plant care to precision agriculture.
To bring this vision closer to reality several issues were addressed and resolved:
- software infrastructure for pervasive computing that can support the integration between our physical space and virtual computing space;
- sensors and sensor network that can capture and disseminate context information;
- context-aware applications that use context information to create intelligent artefacts and applications; ·
- embedding computing into physical entities;
- user interfaces for supporting ubiquitous computing.
The system picks up on the plants' signals that indicate when plants need help, such as more water, more nutrients or more or less light. Essentially, the plants are controlling the system," says Tooke.
"The main idea behind PLANTS is to develop a system that produces the optimal growing conditions for a crop, so that crops are kept in the best possible health with the minimum of inputs," she continues. "It promotes sustainability, because there isn't excessive use of inputs like fertilizer and water. It makes crop management more economic too, as well as less damaging to the environment".
The system uses an infrared camera to scan the entire crop canopy. It can automatically detect when individual or groups of plants are getting too hot. Another sensor detects chlorophyll fluorescence, which tells the system the rate at which the plant is absorbing energy. That reflects the current state of photosynthesis, itself a reflection of the plant's health. The team at University College Cork is evaluating other sensors in a future project.
These sensors communicate their data through specially developed wireless transmitters. The transmitters started out as a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), a sort of universal microchip that can be set to carry out many different functions. Over the life of the project, however, scientists at project partner the Tyndall National Institute in Cork managed to reduce the essential technology from 100mm FPGAs, to a specialised 25mm module. They believe it will be possible to reduce it to a mere 10mm cube utilising the latest system integration technologies under development at Tyndall.
This system incorporates a wireless transceiver capability with embedded protocol software to minimise power consumption and maximise data throughput. This can work in conjunction with high specification FPGA technology for signal processing tasks. Additional input capability for sensor and actuator integration can be incorporated seamlessly due to the modular nature of the system. This gives it the ability to interface to a broad range of physical and chemical transducers. The total system is packaged in a modular 25mm cubed form factor developed at Tyndall. This enables the module to be utilised in a wide variety of projects incorporating a multitude of actuators/sensors in miniaturised, mobile, autonomous systems.
What's more, these chips work wirelessly and contain their own batteries. They can communicate over large distances for their size, with a current range of about 10m, but again the Tyndall team hope to push their range further. "Finally, they are also looking at the potential of 'Power Harvesting' for the chip, where it would supply its own energy needs through solar energy or ground vibrations, making the chip completely independent,'' says Tooke.
Posted by: Ethan Source