In 2017, the technology we use for our horticulture and greenhouse farming efforts is becoming almost futuristic. While some farmers are using drones to capture crop data and guide their irrigation and fertilisation efforts, researchers from Penn State University in the United States, have created an alternative method for plant care. Instead of drones, they have developed a physical sensor that measures the thickness and electrical capacity of the leaves; two indicators of plant water content. This sensor physically attaches to the plant and sends data to a terminal for farmers to then adjust their operation accordingly.
The aim of the advanced system is to, in real time, constantly monitor plant water stress. Monitoring plant water stress is essential to plant health as their water content determines their quality, and monitoring stress levels be revolutionary in arid regions where water is scarce. Traditionally, this kind of test requires taking samples to a laboratory and is tedious work for scientists; automating this process allows for faster reaction times and could help cut operational costs.
“Leaf thickness is like a balloon – it swells by hydration and shrinks by water stress/dehydration” say the researchers. The technology is able to notice these microscopic changes within the leaves and react accordingly. “The mechanism behind the relationship between leaf electrical capacitance and water status is complex. Simply put, the leaf electrical capacitance changes in response to variation in plant water status and ambient light. So, the analysis of leaf thickness and capacitance variations indicate plant water status — well-watered versus stressed.”
The team at Penn State hopes that the technology is an integral milestone on the pathway to an assortment of plant technologies that can help farmers effectively and efficiently monitor their plants for smarter and more sustainable irrigation. Being able to control this irrigation can improve plant health and significantly reduce water waste.
In the future, the team hopes to develop the system so that it can be powered by solar cells and management by tech as simple as a mobile phone app.
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