While we know what the impacts of climate change and pollution are likely to be, collecting detailed measurements is challenging. Putting sensors in every field or forest is expensive and time-consuming; and while these sensors can measure the state of the environment they can’t tell us what is happening to the plants themselves. But now the SME-led PLEASED project (PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices) is hoping to change that, by using plants themselves as environmental monitors.
Dr Vitaletti, project coordinator and Chief Technology Officer at WLAB – an Italian SME which emphasises a culture of innovation and technical excellence in the area of wireless technologies and mobile/pervasive computing – says, 'Plants will be "the sentinel" of the environment. To this end, we are trying to classify the electrical signals generated by plants in reaction to external stimuli like pollutants.'
By using the same sort of technology that measures brain and muscle movements in human beings, Dr Vitaletti and his team think we can better understand what is happening in the environment, and in plant-life as a result. He calls this blend of living tissue and digital sensors 'cyborg plants'. Once within the plant, the microsensors developed by the PLEASED team can collect the signals generated by the plant, analyse them, combine them with that of other plants nearby, and produce a clear analysis of the environment. In other words, the cyborg plant will tell you how it feels and why it feels that way.
Dr Vitaletti and his team have been creating their prototypes from cheap, readily-available components in the hopes that everyone, from hobbyists to farmers, will be able to make their own plant sensors. Anyone would then be able, for instance, to determine if a plant needs more or less sun and water, or how a specific fertiliser affects its health. And since the solution is wi-fi-based, monitoring your garden from your living room would technically be possible.
'The whole PLEASED architecture is open. The main purpose for this, is to create a community of people interested in developing such technology,' says Dr Vitaletti 'We really hope that the PLEASED open community will grow and help us to achieve better and more general results. We are developing the PLEASED kit, namely an open system that allows users to perform their own experiments and improve the design.'
The PLEASED project is also making the data it collects freely available 'The availability of a large, high quality dataset is necessary for our project to develop. To use plants as sensing devices we need to develop classification algorithms capable of understanding the signals generated by plants,' says Dr Vitaletti. 'In particular, we hope that researchers will [be able to test their own] classification algorithms on the dataset.'
Plant-based monitoring opens up a whole range of opportunities for understanding the effect of pollution and climate change as never before. But Dr Vitaletti stresses that collecting data is only a first step in protecting our environment for future generations.
'If understanding is the first necessary step to change, plants can contribute by providing us with a valuable tool to better understand and monitor our environment,' he says, 'but then change is up to us.'PLEASED is a EUR 1.45 million project, with EUR 1.07 million funded by the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), in the Future and Emerging Technologies initiative. The project started in January 2012 and will end in May 2015.