PLANtAR aims to develop cost-efficient, miniaturized, networked, biodegradable monitoring electronics to help tackle one of the world’s biggest challenges: producing enough food over 9 billion people while also protecting the environment.
Since the start of the 20th century, technologies such as improved plant breeding, fertilizers and plant protection products (pesticides, herbicides and fungicides) have enabled farming to keep pace with constantly rising demand for food. However, intensive agricultural practices, just barely optimized for high-yield production, are unsustainable. Not only are they damaging to the environment, but they also require large quantities of clean water for irrigation – water that may no longer be available due to climate change. Yet with the global population set to grow from 8 billion in 2025 to 9.6 billion in 2050, the UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that food production needs to increase by 70% in this period . Solving the dilemma between high-yield intensive agriculture and protecting the environment calls for cross- industry approaches, and digitalization has a key role to play.
New kinds of electronic sensors, actuators, networks and other digital technologies can increase efficiency and improve environmental sustainability in many agricultural applications. Whether in fields, in greenhouses or in the new domains of indoor and urban farming (which now accounts for 20% of global food production), digital technologies have the potential to enable holistic monitoring of production and growing conditions. Sensors can provide timely warnings of plant stress and / or diseases. By measuring factors such as soil moisture, EC and content of nitrogen, ammonia, surface temperature, solar radiation, CO2 and detecting pests and plant pathogens, digital technologies can help significantly increase yields per cultivated area. And at the same time, they can assist in reducing water, energy, fertilizer and pesticide use.
Although some of such sensors and sensor networks already exist, on the one hand, many are too expensive for large-scale use. On the other hand, more cost-effective sensors and measuring systems lack sufficient accuracy for professional applications. Moreover, since they can pollute the soil if left in place, existing sensor systems generate added costs and effort for producers because they have to be removed from the soil after use.
Affordable, highly integrated, biodegradable solutions
To address these issues, the PLANtAR project is focusing on development of affordable, highly integrated, miniaturized sensors and close-mesh sensor networks (including nano-sensors and paper-based microfluidic devices) and application intelligence in three areas: precision farming (field / urban), greenhouse / indoor farming and farm monitoring. In addition, it aims to reduce the environmental impact and ‘de-installation’ costs of these technologies by ensuring that the sensors are biodegradable, so they can be left in place after their use and simply ploughed back into the soil.
With its ambition to provide for high-volume markets, PLANtAR aims specifically to create low-cost sensors for the detection of pests and plant pathogens (putrefaction), soil moisture, leaf wetness, ammonia, CO2, electrical conductivity (EC) and nitrate content (NO3). It will also work on creating highly integrated circuits and interfaces including signal pre-processing and battery management for connected sensor systems. By creating an ultra-low power microcontroller with an integrated transceiver and suitable interfaces that connect to different sensors, the PLANtAR consortium will seek to achieve the highest levels of integration and signal analysis at low power operation. This work will also cover new combinations of interface materials and production technologies to meet the requirement for biodegradability.
Biodegradability is a key challenge within the project. As yet, biodegradable sensor nodes which include all the necessary wireless sensor components (substrate, microcontroller, sensors, antenna, power supply and housing) do not exist. The PLANtAR project will explore how printed electronics could be used to solve this challenge, creating devices that are almost fully biodegradable and have an adequate energy supply and data transmission capability. Its goal is to demonstrate a printed circuit board, antenna, battery, and certain sensors and their housings made of biodegradable materials which can be broken up by ploughing and harrowing and decompose into the soil.
Watch the full video on HiPer project here.