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Text message from houseplant: "Please water me!"
Innovative measuring system for monitoring plants triumphs in CyberOne competition
Plants are our most important food source. Like all living organisms, they are continuously exposed to environmental influences and suffer from factors such as excessive or insufficient water and nutrient levels. They have to fend off predators and react to the time of day and season. However, they are not able to provide adequate information about their condition and we only notice disruption to growth when a plant's leaves begin to droop or it shows clear signs of pest infestation. Farmers and gardeners mainly draw on experience to protect crops from frost or pests and provide them with optimum irrigation. They will ask themselves whether the soil is dry or whether it has been a long time since it last rained. As a precaution, careful gardeners will water their plants, whether they actually need to be watered or not. For example, if a grapevine is threatened by mildew, sprays are used as a preventive measure. Assessing the condition and needs of plants at an early stage could therefore help significantly reduce the amount of water and pesticides being used and thereby also improve food supplies.
Dr. Lars Lehner, who holds a doctorate in biology and is Managing Director of Lehner GmbH Sensor-Systeme, is harnessing his company's know-how in the development and production of sensor systems for quality assurance and system control in industrial applications to record and evaluate electrophysiograms for plants. This enables users to establish whether a plant is suffering from predator damage, water stress or fungi, so that steps can be taken early on to prevent damage.
The idea is based on scientific evidence that plants have electrical signal pathways. It has long been proven that plants that find themselves in a stressful situation, such as mechanical damage, exhibit reactions e manifested as electrical potential changes. "This is similar to an ECG for humans," explains Dr. Lehner. "Plants have a standard pattern, too. If striking deviations are detected, the appropriate treatment needs to be initiated."
Besides monitoring plants, however, Dr. Lehner's measuring system can also influence their condition. For example, scientists have been able to trigger blossom development at a specific point by using electrical stimulation. As a result, blossoming and fructification could be moved to a time frame with optimum climatic conditions. "All plants that have a non-woody stem or leaves can potentially be monitored using our method, whether vines, vegetables, hops or pot plants."
The process involves attaching several small surface electrodes to plants in fields or greenhouses. A computer uses the signals from these to produce the plant electrophysiogram. In the future, it will also be possible to send the results as an app to a smartphone. Early notification can protect farmers against severe crop losses caused by factors such as water stress. "We're also developing a small-scale system for private use," says Dr. Lehner. "If users are away on holiday, the system can send a text message to warn them that their houseplants need to be watered so they can ask the neighbours to help."
The recording, evaluation and stimulation system for plant electrophysiograms is currently being applied to a prototype series and recently won the 2011 CyberOne business plan competition. Dr. Lehner is now looking for suitable partners for large-scale applications in agriculture and for series development. As a committed networker, he hopes to find these in the STERN BioRegion, where interdisciplinary engineering know-how is promoted intensively.
Lehner GmbH Sensor-Systeme was founded in 1990 by Rolf-Peter Lehner. This medium-sized family business supplies sensor systems for the graphic arts industry, special-purpose machine construction and partners in higher education and research throughout the world. Numerous Lehner patents ensure quality assurance for register and print image control, paper and general process automation. As a service provider, the company also develops specific sensor systems for biotechnology.
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