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New crop of technology reveals plant health

The scientists, working together in a project called PLANTS, sought to develop a unique system that linked plants, technology and people to continuously assess the state of crop health. Using sensors, transmitters and specialist software, the system monitors the state of the crop on a plant-by-plant basis, in near real-time.

PLANTS adhered to a broader vision where the virtual (computing) space was seamlessly integrated with the physical environment. One of its main objectives was to develop the necessary software modules, tools and methodologies that enable the efficient and flexible integration of 'augmented' plants and artefacts into ubiquitous computing applications which may range from domestic plant care to precision agriculture.

"The main idea behind PLANTS is to develop a system that produces the optimal growing conditions for a crop, so that crops are kept in the best possible health with the minimum of inputs," says Dr Fiona Tooke of the Eden Project, one of the project partners. "It promotes sustainability, because there isn't excessive use of inputs like fertilizer and water. It makes crop management more economic too, as well as less damaging to the environment."

"The system picks up on the plants' signals that indicate when plants need help, such as more water, more nutrients or more or less light. Essentially, the plants are controlling the system," she continues.

The system uses an infrared camera to scan the entire crop canopy. It can automatically detect when individual or groups of plants are getting too hot. Another sensor detects chlorophyll fluorescence, which tells the system the rate at which the plant is absorbing energy. That reflects the current state of photosynthesis, itself a reflection of the plant's health.

These sensors communicate their data through specially developed wireless transmitters. Scientists at lead project partner the Tyndall National Institute managed to reduce the essential tech
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