Could Plants Be Used as Sensors?
Kyle Maxey posted on January 22, 2014 | | 5209 views

plants, horticulture, sensor, environment, monitoringBig Data is all the rage these days as researchers, corporations and governments sift through mountains of information to piece together the puzzles that confound us. While electronic devices create the vast majority of this data, a new project is looking to extend data collection technology into the world of plants.

As a new multi-national European project, Plants Employed As Sensing Devices (PLEASED) has a simple premise: plants have amazing sensing capabilities and we should use them to collect data.

Central to the PLEASED project is the idea that, like all living things, plants generate electrical signals as a response to external stimuli. These electrical signals communicate information, and therefore can be collected and deciphered. If true, that means plants can be used as living sensors able to provide researchers with critical information about a number of local, environmental factors.

Armed with a fivefold objective, the EU-backed PLEASED project hopes to create the first open dataset of electrical signals generated by plants in reaction to external stimuli. With this dataset the team hopes to create a local classifier that can categorize these signals and a global classifier able to correlate signals generated by groups of plants. Once complete, the classifiers would be implemented on resource constraint devices and a test bed to verify the classifiers would be created.

To make this seemingly fantastic idea a reality, the PLEASED project proposes that a small electronic device be created that can be embedded in a plant and used to collect signals generated by natural stimuli. As the data is collected it could be streamed to labs where it would be analyzed and used to evaluate the local environment.

In the end, the PLEASED project hopes to design a biological sensing system that is cost effective, self-sustaining and can help solve two of society’s major problems: rampant air pollution and an overabundant use of chemicals in agriculture.

Whether the PLEASED project will actually work is still up in the air. However, researchers involved with the project will know if they can begin classifying plant-generated electrical signals by May of this year – and they hope to have their open-source dataset started around the same time.

While PLEASED certainly seems like something out of science fiction, it is creative ideas like this that spur on innovation and lead to new discoveries.  After all, maybe one day plants themselves will become the vanguard in environmental monitoring, giving us better insight into the world we share.

Image and Video Courtesy of PLEASED