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Optical phenotyping sensor provides insider's view of plant health

“We can detect stress in the plant before it is detectable by eye,” says Fabrizio Ticchiarelli, Lead Biologist at agri-tech start-up Gardin. The company is developing a low-cost optical phenotyping sensor that will give a real-time indication of plant health and predictions of ripening, nutritional content, and yield.

Most current sensors monitor the environment or the physical changes in the plant resulting from sub-optimal conditions, and there can be a delay before these appear. Gardin’s approach is to instead look at the cellular processes within the plant, which adapt on much faster timescales, and aims to provide recommendations for action.

Fabrizio presented at the Start-Up Showcase at Agri-TechE’s REAP conference 2021. He explains that the goal when growing plants is to increase their biomass, and photosynthesis is the key to this: “It is possible to gauge how efficiently photosynthesis is occurring within each leaf of the plant by measuring fluorescence coming from the photosynthesis pigment, chlorophyll.

“As photosynthesis is so fundamental to plant health, it is linked to many molecular pathways in the plant. If a plant is stressed or limited by a lack of water or a nutrient, it diverts energy away from growth and towards other processes to compensate. We can pick up that change by monitoring chlorophyll fluorescence.

“We have completed trials, particularly with growers in controlled environments, to look at patterns of change across the plant in response to different stresses. We use computer vision to assess where the changes are happening, for example if they manifest first in younger or older leaves or if they are specific to a certain part of the plant.

“By looking at changes in the photosynthetic signal, we will be able to determine what type of stress is occurring and how to get things back on track.”

The predictive power of the tool relies on data, so Gardin is currently building up its datasets for several uses: to optimize light usage in vertical farming, to identify where stress is occurring across a crop for precise interventions, to forecast yield, to quantify fruit ripening to infer the best time for picking, and to track and improve shelf-life and storage post-harvest.

Gardin has developed a sensing technology that has been trialed in vertical farms and is about to begin trials in greenhouses and polytunnels. The next iteration, which is close to the commercial product, will also be used for broadacre applications. Mounted in a polytunnel, the sensor swivels to cover a large area of the canopy. If photosynthesis drops, due to drought, frost, or overheating, the Gardin device will respond with an emergency alert.

Fabrizio explains: “The immediate goal is to give farmers direct insight into what they should do next to improve yields. “The long-term vision is to deliver a low-cost high-throughput phenotyping platform for all growers, breeders, and the food processing industry.”

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