Wearables today can tell you just about everything you want to know about your body, and some stuff you’d rather put off until tomorrow. They can monitor your steps, your heart rate, and even let you know how drunk you are by analyzing the alcohol molecules in your skin. There are entire lines of wearables designed for kids and pets. What’s next? A wearable for plants?
A team of engineers from Iowa State University has developed wearable sensors, some specially designed for our photosynthetic friends, allowing growers to measure how their crops use water. The innovative new device — which its creators are calling “plant tattoo sensors” — is designed to be low-cost, using the revolutionary material graphene, which allows it to be thin and adhere to surfaces like tape.
“Wearable sensor technologies have been researched and applied in biomedicine, healthcare, and related industries, but are still relatively new and almost unexplored for applications related to agriculture and crops,” Liang Dong, an Iowa State electrical engineer who helped develop the technology, told Digital Trends. “Tape-based sensors can be simply attached to plants and provide signals related to transpiration from plants, with no any complex installation procedures or parts required.”
The graphene-on-tape technology developed by Dong and his colleagues can be used to monitor a plant’s thirst, tracking how leaves release water vapor by measuring changes in conductivity. The technology can be used beyond horticulture as well. In a paper published in December in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies, the researchers demonstrated how similar technology can be applied to other wearable sensors to monitor strain and pressure, including in a smart glove capable of monitoring the movement of hands.
Water is key to crop productivity, so it is a top concern for farmers who want to make sure their plants are properly quenched. Given the value of the resource and its scarcity in many regions, efficient water use is vital to a functioning and sustainable operation.
“Water is a seriously limited factor in agriculture around the world,” Patrick Schnable, an Iowa State plant scientist who worked on the technology, said. “A first approach to overcoming this challenge of a water-limited world is to breed crops that are more drought tolerant and water efficient. Current practice is to conduct expensive replicated yield tests under various levels of drought stress. Our ‘plant tattoo sensors’ will enable breeders to identify hybrids that are likely to perform better under drought stress prior to conducting large-scale yield tests.”
By identifying the plants that perform best under these stressful conditions, breeders have a better chance of developing more drought-tolerant crops, which will come in handy as climate change sweeps the globe.