By Vina Medenilla

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university based in the United States. Under this is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a research enterprise in Singapore that is the largest international research program of MIT. SMART consists of five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRG) and one of these groups is Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP). DiSTAP focuses on creating novel technologies as a key to address problems in food production which will enable us to meet the demands of the increasing population. The researchers believe that this will also allow farmers to effectively use urban and precision agriculture for higher yields and better output. 

 

DiSTAP’s novel devices for the enhancement of urban farming

Two of their latest innovations include nanosensors that, as per Dr. Min Hao Wong, deputy scientific director of DiSTAP, “can intercept distress signals within plants to reveal how they respond to different types of stress, such as injury, infection, and heat and light damage,” and a handheld Raman spectroscopy system that refers to “a portable laser-based device that can provide chemical fingerprints of the material under investigation.” This Raman spectroscopy system utilizes laser light in terms of reading signals, allowing access to the internal process, movements, or mechanisms of plants. DiSTAP’s research shows that there is a correlation between the ability of this device to detect carotenoids in plant leaves and the Shade Avoidance Syndrome (SAS), which is an adaptive response and an unchangeable phenomenon that allows plants to reach more light when they are in shaded conditions. 

 

Both devices can help growers monitor the plant’s health and measure the important chemicals in plants in real-time. This can show beneficial information such as what stimulates each plants’ growth, which the farmers can make use of to improve the crops’ growing conditions and yield at the right time. Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh, DiSTAP’s Scientific Director said, “This has been a dream for the urban farmer for some time, and our research and technologies will seek to overcome current limitations and allow farmers to see deep inside a plant, its detailed biochemical portrait, and witness what is happening there.”

 

A Raman system that can identify different plant species and chemicals.

Compared to other sensors, which are often destructive and with low accuracy, these two technologies are developed to send out fast data with higher accuracy. This nanosensor does not need to go through cutting or dissection in order to get the necessary plant details, unlike what the other technology requires, so it will not interrupt the plants’ growth at all. 

 

Nanosensors that can detect plant hormones in actual time.

Aside from discovering technological opportunities for farmers through innovation and research, Wong says: “In addition to our research efforts, we promote urban farming through education – for example organizing seminars or webinars with industry partners and educational institutions that open up discussions and help explain urban farming and explore its possibilities.”

 

When asked why they focused on urban and precision farming, Wong explained that food production in the city will bring food closer to the customers, boost food security, and will address the issues of sustainable practices. “We believe that urban farming will be an important part of the suite of solutions that can address the world’s challenges with food,” Wong added.

 

In amplifying their advocacies and research, the deputy scientific director says that the awareness and support of urban farming of the public and the government, recognition, and use of digital technologies, further enhancements in agricultural technology through research, are some of the factors that can contribute in the promotion of urban farming around the world. 

 

Photos courtesy of SMART DiSTAP.

For more information, visit https://distap.mit.edu/