When Horticulture Assistant Professor Krishna Nemali joined Purdue in July 2016, he immediately began to develop a program as new to the school as he was. Nemali studied agriculture in India before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and spending nine years as a scientist in controlled environment crop physiology at Monsanto. All these experiences combined to provide him with the range of experience necessary in his current position coordinating research and Purdue Extension activities in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).
CEA harnesses technology to grow plants like vegetables and ornamentals in conditions maximizing the efficient use of water, light, labor and space. Hydroponics, the method most commonly associated with CEA, minimizes water, nutrient and labor requirements to grow plants. It can also reduce other needs, such as pesticides. Researchers like Nemali work to discover the perfect combinations of water, light, nutrients, temperature and additional factors to make sure there is no wasted energy or potential. Nemali’s goal is to answer the question, “How do you make that technology easily accessible to everybody?”
Nemali is working to harness the potential of smartphones, specifically new apps and add-on devices, to provide growers access to these processes. “There are companies and some apps already there that just take a picture and show some data. That’s not what we’re trying to get at. We have these expensive imaging stations and we are developing technologies that match that high-quality data.” A combination of research, calibration and algorithms takes place behind the scenes to provide farmers with valuable, yet easy-to-understand information, everything using their smartphones.
One app Nemali is creating will use background processing to measure plant growth. The plant’s size is calculated through pictures the user takes and algorithms designed by Nemali. With daily use, the app generates growth curves. “It’s like when you take your kids to a doctor, and they take a weight and height measurement. They put the numbers on a standard chart. 90th percentile height, 70th percentile weight. You can create standard curves for different species and plot this data under the standards.”