By Pragati Verma
Many farmers talk to their plants. But what if plants could also talk and tell their growers when they’re thirsty, short of nutrients, or under attack by pests or pathogens?
Last summer, tomato plants growing in Sweet Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, could do exactly that. Using biosensor technology, these plants could sense when they needed water or nutrients and wirelessly relay the distress signal to farmers. “By the time, the plants start showing external symptoms, it is too late to prevent yield loss,” says Shely Aronov, founder and CEO of InnerPlant, a Davis, California-based startup that developed the sensor technology enabling the tomato plants to communicate. By building sensing capabilities into their plants, farmers can detect problems with their crops early and nip issues in the bud, she adds.
Encouraged by the field trials of their tomato plants, InnerPlant is now applying the same technology to soybeans and grapes to give farmers “easy-to-use tools that boost yields and supply consumers with healthy food while preserving the environment.”
Data Is the New Crop
Promising to take the guesswork out of growing crops, Aronov predicts that farming’s future is as much about data as dirt. “We are bringing the data revolution to farms,” she quips.
To help farmers make data-driven decisions, InnerPlant’s technology “triggers the release of fluorescent proteins in plants’ leaves that light up when the plant is struggling,” explains Aronov. “Every color indicates a specific field threat.” Invisible to the naked eye, these signals can be detected with a phone camera, satellite, or drone, and used to alert farmers to potential crop needs precisely when they’re required. For instance, if there is an insect infestation in a certain location in the farm, their system sends out an alert to the farmer with a recommendation on where and what to spray to use to kill the insects and stop their spread.
“We are bringing the data revolution to farms.”
–Shely Aronov, founder and CEO, InnerPlant
Currently, their “sentinel plant platform” displays images that use specific colors to indicate different crop problems, enabling farmers to quickly take corrective action. Next, Aronov plans to use artificial intelligence and advanced analytics tools to ingest data from other sources, such as temperature and humidity levels, and integrate it with plant signals to provide farmers with holistic advice. Consider a pest infestation in a farm, she explains. “Instead of simply sending an alert to quickly spray pesticides, our system will check if there is a rain forecast and recommend scheduling the spray after the rain.” To do so, InnerPlant has partnered with InterTrust to create a platform that can correlate sensor data with information from other sources that could impact crops. “The new dashboard will be ready in six to nine months,” she adds.
Modernizing an Ancient Job
Aronov believes this combination of Internet of Things (IoT), advanced data analytics, and biotechnology will modernize one of the oldest jobs in the world—and she’s not alone.
Several researchers are hacking plant-human communications to transform agriculture. Engineers at MIT have embedded spinach leaves with carbon nanotubes to detect explosive materials and pollutants. When the plants’ roots detect the compound, they send a signal that can be picked up by an infrared camera, which triggers an email alert to researchers. Several others, such as Microceres, have built on-plant sensors that can measure their water needs, and others like Huxley and Plant Vision use computer vision, machine learning, and an augmented reality interface to detect and diagnose anomalies in crops, while correlating them with environmental data to determine the cause.
According to Aronov, the reams of data collected by plant sensors can change how crops are grown. She lists four key benefits: The first, and the most obvious, is that early warning systems can prevent pests, diseases, and nutritional deficiency and increase farm yields. Second, plant sensors encourage sustainable agricultural practices by limiting the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to localized areas rather than spraying the entire field. “If we can identify the patient zero or the first few patients around the patient zero, we won’t need a blanket application of fertilizers and pesticides, and that will lower the environmental impact of protecting our farms,” she explains.
Third, technology like InnerPlant can facilitate precision farming by communicating with sensors embedded in other modern irrigation systems and tractors that use IoT to monitor water quality, ambient temperature, moisture, and soil conditions to supply the right amount of water and nutrients to farms. Combined with data from InnerPlant’s sensors, these smart irrigation systems and tractors can now autonomously administer water, nutrients, and other crop protection sprays to individual plants as needed. “All the infrastructure to enable tractor fleets to optimize the number of nutrients and additives on a plant-by-plant basis already exists. All we needed was data from plants and now we will be able to provide that,” she says.
“All the infrastructure to enable tractor fleets to optimize the number of nutrients and additives on a plant-by-plant basis already exists. All we needed was data from plants and now we will be able to provide that.”
Fourth, it can help fix losses across the supply chain. Aronov points to an example: “We will lose far fewer potatoes if we could identify the ones with fungus in the field itself and get rid of them at that stage. But if we miss the signs of infection, it would spread to other potatoes and the losses will keep growing as the crop is harvested, shipped to the warehouse, and moved across the supply chain.”
Ripe for Innovation
A big part of the excitement around these plant biosensors is that they work in real fields, explains Aronov. “In agriculture, we have great tools in the laboratories. But to unlock the next level of innovation, we will need to bring the equipment from labs to fields.”
While her quest to enable farmers to make data-driven decisions drove her initial vision, she now expects several more applications to emerge. “My dream is that one day this data will help us figure out how to improve photosynthesis,” she says. Her vision is to “create new flavors and improve nutrition and shelf life by stressing plants in different ways,” all while confronting the most pressing issues facing the farming industry today.