In an effort to become more trim and efficient, everything in life has been given a miniature electronic brain.  The car knows when its is not burning at the perfect air to fuel ratio, the thermostat knows when you go to bed so it can turn down the heat a bit, and now plants can send a text, notifying the gardener that it is thirsty.  Farming is getting even more high-tech and now plants can be precision watered, conserving resources and helping the environment.  Apologies to all the Lord of the Rings nerds out there, the text messages will not be in Old Entish.

Yes, I'll have a Bud Lite, please.

There are reports aplenty buzzing around on the interwebs about a slip on water sensor that attaches directly to a plant leaf and sends a text message or e-mail when it is time to be watered.  Many sources are attributed to be working on this, from the Israeli government whose number one concern is water conservation to NASA, which is looking to be able to conserve resources while cultivating plants in space.  Regardless of who creates the product, the methodology is much the same.  A sensor is slipped onto the plant leaf that connects a tiny electrical current through the water in the plant tissue.  Once the water goes away, the current is broken and a signal is sent to a computer, which results in a message sent to the gardener indicating which plant is thirsty.

The Israeli government says that their product will cost about $250 to wire up a 5,000 tree orchard.  This number is about 5 cents per plant which means the cost per plant could easily be recovered for a large farm that has high water and electricity bills associated with feeding their plants in a matter of minutes.  Of course every plant would not need to be "chipped".  Perhaps only 1 in 100 plants would need this sensor to be sufficiently representative of the entire fleet of plants.  There are still a few questions that have not been answered before farmers can allocate part of their water budget to a “new Porsche fund”.

Power from the Israeli unit comes from a built-in photovoltaic cell, capable of supplying the meager amount of electricity needed to run the device.  It is possible that a cloudy day could put the system in the dark and make the farmers go back to the old method of simply watering every plant.  Reports on the device are not clear as to how long it can run without electrical input but, judging by the size of the solar cell and the magnitude of the task at hand, it is likely that the system will be able to go without sun for at least a few hours if not days.

Also, there is not much talk about getting these little buggers back after the harvest.  Yes, it is simple enough to go around and take each one off of the plant, but leaves do tend to fall off on their own accord on a yearly basis.  An easy way to hunt down the sensors would be necessary in order to keep the orchard from turning into an electronics landfill.  After all, the sensor is designed to be environmentally friendly.  There is no sense in it being a pollutant after it has sent its last text message of the season.

Although water is the most important resource to manage for a plant, there are others that have been overlooked.  A farmer would ideally want to know everything about the plant, from soil acidity to nutrient levels and frost accumulation.  As the farm continues to get upgraded into the 21st century, these capabilities may be added to the water sensing messaging device, increasing productivity even more.  The robotic farmer may be a long way off, but these leaf-hugging microchips have a lot of interest from big farms and may even be in use already.  Just remember, you can ignore the ex-wife when she calls, but there is no “ignore call” button for thirsty plants.

Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.