Sensor developed at CU-Boulder enables plants to say “I’m thirsty”

Corn and potato crops may soon provide information to farmers about when the plants need water and how much should be delivered, due to a CU-Boulder invention. A tiny sensor clipped to plant leaves charts their moisture content, a key measure of water deficiency and accompanying stress. Data from the leaves is sent wirelessly over the Internet to computers linked to irrigation equipment, ensuring timely watering, reducing excessive water and energy use, and potentially saving farmers millions of dollars a year.

The technology invented by Research Associate Hans-Dieter Seelig of CU-Boulder’s BioServe Space Technology Center, a NASA research partnership center for the commercialization of space, was originally designed for use in conserving water for plant growth during long-term space flight.

The new technology has been optioned to AgriHouse Inc., a Berthoud, Colorado, high-tech company. Richard Stoner, AgriHouse founder and president, likened the plant communication aspect of the invention to a scene in the 1986 comedy film Little Shop of Horrors when a giant carnivorous plant tells humans to “feed me.”

“This technology allows plants to say, ‘water me,’” Stoner said. “Basically, this is a device that will allow plants to talk to humans and communicate their needs, like when to water and apply fertilizer.”