Plant Wearables and Airdropped Sensors Could Sow Big Data Seeds

Flexible electronics developed by Professor Muhammad Hussain and his team.

Stretchable plant wearables and smart tags dropped by drones aim to help give farming a big data makeover. The relatively cheap technologies for mass monitoring of individual plants across large greenhouses or crop fields could get field tests in three countries starting in 2019.

The idea came from researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia with expertise in flexible electronics. After talking with colleagues who were cultivating genetically engineered plants in greenhouses, they recognized the need for inexpensive sensors that could be deployed en masse and report on individual plant conditions. Their early offerings include a stretchable sensor for measuring micrometer-level changes in plant growth and a “PlantCopter” temperature and humidity sensor designed to be dropped from a drone and corkscrew its way through the air for a gradual descent.

“When you are deploying PlantCopters, they get stuck strategically to the leaves of the plants because of the design architecture,” says Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, a professor of electrical engineering at KAUST. “Obviously not 100 percent of the PlantCopters will be stuck to plants, but that is fine in the context of their cost.”

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