At the moment, the farmer often sees his crop daily. Roses are harvested twice a day. And also with tomatoes, someone walks into the greenhouse several times a week to harvest. If this is no longer the case in the future, because the robot will harvest independently, that will change. At first glance this looks very cute. However, an experienced employee who goes to the greenhouse to harvest does more than just cut roses or pick tomatoes. The employee sees it when the crop grows less in a particular place. Diseases and pests are also detected and recorded.
What if there is almost no one left in the greenhouse? You can, of course, ask someone to go to the greenhouse several times a week to look at the plants, but this is expensive. It would be nicer if harvesting robots could do the job as well. Often they actually “look” at the crop to identify ripe tomatoes. A lot is already possible by combining vision technology and knowledge of the horticultural world in an AI system. In fact, there are already systems in development that do just that.
It is better to take a step forward. Not just researching how the crop works, but applying new technology. Vision technology is at the forefront of this. Given wavelengths of the spectrum other than those humans can see, a lot is actually possible. Consider examples to determine the ripeness, internal quality, and sweetness (Brix value) of a fruit.
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But what if you could notice so much more? So, in addition to seeing, you can also smell a plant? This application is currently working. Many companies are developing an electronic nose or electronic nose. This allows VOC (Volatile organic compounds) are measured. A plant attacked by aphids emits specific odors to warn its neighbors in the vicinity. This allows members of the same species to produce antibodies, making them less attractive to aphids. These types of VOCs can also be determined using a gas chromatograph. However, these devices are often bulky and perfumes must be brought into the devices. Not practical in a greenhouse.
NXP is currently collaborating with Koppert Biological Systems, Canopy Guard and TU Delft, among others, on the “Tiny e-nose early detection of crop infestation” project. For this purpose, microchips are developed that can detect various pests. This discovery is made using different types of ink that can react with a specific group of VOCs. By attaching these chips to drones, robots, or a micro-net in a greenhouse, pests can be detected at a very early stage. This is not a solution just for the moment when people are (almost) no longer entering the greenhouse. It can also detect pests that have not yet appeared because the infestation begins on the underside of a leaf, for example. In this way, actions can be taken much earlier to ensure optimal growing conditions for the plant.
By the way, this consortium is not the only one working in this direction. InsectSense detects VOCs using bees. For this they use the very sensitive odor receptors of these insects. A special training tool has been developed to teach bees to recognize a specific scent in a few minutes.
Before the products of both projects can actually be used in practice, a lot of research needs to be done. However, both are good examples of where technology is not only replacing humans, but can do things that humans cannot do, like smelling plant health!
The smell of rain
And although we humans don’t have as strong a sense of smell as bees, we can too! By the way, the name of this phenomenon is very beautiful, “Petrichor”. Just think about the smell you smell when it rains after a long drought. There’s a good chance you’ll recognize that smell right away, even though you didn’t know until now that the smell was caused by microbes, including Streptomyces bacteria.
It remains fascinating how nature and technology come together…
About this column
In a weekly column, alternately written by Evelyn van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Katelyn Gabriels, Karina Wijma, Bernd Mayer-Lebla and Willemine Breuer next to bir Innovation assets are trying to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes supplemented by guest bloggers, work in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous episodes.