When crops talk to farmers

A technology developed for NASA to conserve water for plant growth during long-term space flights has been adapted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB) to serve another purpose. Now, crops can tell farmers they need water. The farmers just need to clip a tiny sensor to their potato or corn leaves. When the plant feels it needs some moisture, data from the leaves will be sent wirelessly over the Internet to computers linked to irrigation equipment. This should save millions of dollars per year in Colorado only, and it will also be eco-friendly by reducing the amounts of water used for irrigation.

A technology developed for NASA to conserve water for plant growth during long-term space flights has been adapted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB) to serve another purpose. Now, crops can tell farmers they need water. The farmers just need to clip a tiny sensor to their potato or corn leaves. When the plant feels it needs some moisture, data from the leaves will be sent wirelessly over the Internet to computers linked to irrigation equipment. This should save millions of dollars per year in Colorado only, and it will also be eco-friendly by reducing the amounts of water used for irrigation.

The AgriHouse Sg-1000 Leaf Sensor

You can see above a Sg-1000™ RFID sensor attached to a plant leaf (Credit: AgriHouse Inc.). You'll see other pictures in this AgriHouse press release which adds that Sg-1000 really means Seelig-1000. You'll also discover that the company has an interesting motto -- and another trademark: '"I'm Thirsty™" plant intelligence has arrived.'

This technology has been invented by Hans-Dieter Seelig of the UCB's BioServe Space Technologies Center, a non-profit, NASA-sponsored Research Partnership Center. And is has been transferred to AgriHouse, also based in Colorado, to develop it commercially. Here is a quote from Richard Stoner, AgriHouse founder and president: "What we are developing is a non-intrusive device that gently rests on the plants and lets them interface with the digital world," he said. "Basically, this is a device that will allow plants to talk to humans and communicate their needs, like when to water and apply fertilizer."

So how do these sensors work?

Less than one-tenth the size of a postage stamp, the sensor consists of an integrated-circuit chip that clips to individual plant leaves and collects and stores information, which can be wirelessly transmitted to selected computers, Seelig said. The computers, for example, could instruct individual pivot irrigation systems used widely on Colorado’s eastern plains to dispense set amounts of water to particular crops, automatically turning the motors that drive them on-and-off and conserving water and energy in the process, he said.

This technology will also be good for the environment by reducing the number of watering days for certain crops by up to a day or two each week. As agricultural activity accounts for about 40 percent of the total freshwater use in the U.S., a decrease in water used for irrigation will also decrease the pressure on lakes and reservoirs.

But is this possible to use this technology for all crops? "The researchers have been experimenting with cowpea, a legume, but believe the new leaf-sensor technology would be transferable to a variety of crops, including corn, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets and pinto beans."

Now some questions remain. How many sensors will need to be installed on a single field? And how much will they cost? The answer is not clear yet. And what will be the total cost for farmers? Will it be less than the economies they'll make on water? Again, the answer is not clear. But the technology really looks promising, and I hope it will soon be widely deployed.

Sources: University of Colorado at Boulder news release, June 14, 2007; and various websites

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