Tiny sensors allowing observation of plant growth may help urban farms

Researchers from the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), MIT's research enterprise in Singapore, have found a way to observe plants and their growth all the way down to the molecular level.

This is done by injecting nano-sized particles invisible to the human eye into plants. These nanosensors will then help to detect minor changes in the plant - from small changes in temperature and the impact of soil acidity to the beginnings of plant disease and pest infestations.

This technique might potentially help local farmers investing in urban rooftop farms to give plants the appropriate nutrients at the right time, said Professor Michael Strano, co-lead principal investigator at the Smart research group for Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (Distap) and a professor at MIT.

"These sensors are useful for extracting information from the plant," said Prof Strano, speaking to The Straits Times on the sidelines of a Distap symposium on emerging technology for urban farming.

This is just one of the smart farming tools that Prof Strano and his team are working on, in partnership with local scientists at Smart.

"We are also working towards a possibility that plants might even one day be able to 'send' information on plant growth to farmers' phones," said Prof Strano.

With this close monitoring of plants growing in Singapore's urban farms, diseases and pests that might cripple plant growth can be detected even before they visually manifest. "With these nanosensors, urban farmers can be given real-time information on what's going on in their farms - including what is working and what is not working," Prof Strano added.

Multiple sensors on one plant will even allow users to merge information streams and optimise monitoring of the plant - on things ranging from its stress response to its growth rate - and its water usage, Prof Strano said.

This project could help Singapore achieve its "30 by 30" goal, as the Republic works towards producing 30 per cent of its own nutritional needs by 2030.

"We will move out of the laboratories soon, to form a test bed for urban agriculture," said Professor Chua Nam Hai, co-lead principal investigator at Smart's Distap research group as well as deputy chairman of Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory.

"We will employ our sensors there, while trying to increase per-hectare productivity for plant growth, with attempts to refine environmental conditions to improve crop nutritional value," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2019, with the headline 'Tiny sensors allowing observation of plant growth may help urban farms'. Print Edition | Subscribe