Constant development of agricultural technology led to a new phase of farming called “Smart Farming,” which can solve impending issues such as youth unemployment and food shortages. South Korea, as a leader in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry, is advancing in smart farming, a combination of family and ICT. The Argus met with Prof. Lee Jung-hoon, who widened the horizon of Smart Farming to hear valuable stories of his research.
Research Paper: Monitoring of Water Transportation in Plant Stem with Microneedle Sap Flow Sensor*
The paper details an experiment in which a microneedle sensor ─ a thin and long Micro Electro Mechanical Sensor (MEMS**) ─ is inserted into plant saps of weak stems or roots like tomatoes. Drilling thicker measuring instruments of the Heat Dissipation Method (HDM) wound plants that have weak stems and roots. To mitigate this, researchers developed safer microneedles which could identify the plants’ internal temperature and transpiration.
Microneedle sensors were inserted into 16 tomato roots under identical conditions. The sensor consists of a sensing probe, which measures both temperature and sap flow, two auxiliary needles, and contact pads that display the measured information. Sensors were tuned to equalize the amount and time of sunshine during the day when plants were most active in photosynthesis and transpiration. Consequently, the microneedle sensor was able to measure accurately with an error range of 10 percent between the fluid flow and sensor signal compared with other sensors that have an error range of over 20 percent.
* The experimental research was conducted by Lee Jung-hoon and four others. It was published in the July 2018 issue of Journal of Micromechanical Systems.
** MEMS: It is a size of one millionth of a meter – about half the thickness of hair sized – sensors, made with semiconductor technology. It processes data through sensors, stores data, and sends a response signal and data to other devices.
What is Smart Farming?
Smart Farming is a new type of farming which grafts greenhouses or barns onto ICT. This allows farmers to maintain optimal growing conditions of plants and animals remotely and automatically. Smart farms can be divided into three types according to their purposes: smart greenhouses, smart orchards, and smart barns. They are equipped with the functions of managing, monitoring and controlling growing conditions. Smart Farming is emerging as an alternative to contending with population growth and food shortages. [Education, Promotion & Information Service in Food, Agriculture]
Interview with Professor Lee Jung-hoon, the head developer of Real Smart Farm
The Argus: Please introduce yourself.
Lee Jung-hoon (Lee): Hello, I am Lee Jung-hoon, a professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Science, teaching bio-nano micro systems* at Seoul National University (SNU). In 2017, our lab established a venture named Telofarm, and currently we have been developing Real Smart Farm.
The Argus: What differentiates Real Smart Farms from existing smart farms?
Lee: Smart Farming is a farming method incorporating ICT into existing farms. A smart farm controls an environmental system, similar to controlling the temperature and humidity in patients’ rooms. Real Smart Farm is more like giving a specific medical diagnosis to patients; Real Smart Farms can manage plants more closely by using microneedle sensors.
Real Smart Farm is a hydroponic plantation that uses MEMS rather than just an environmental control system. Once it is embedded into a plant, it measures the flow rate in a vessel and the movement of the nutrient solution**, determines the transpiration rate, and controls the amount of nutrient intake, which manages plants more precisely. Therefore, Real Smart Farming increases the variety of plants produced and saves human resources through automation.
* Nano micro systems: Nano micro systems refer to technology which makes a machine very small and creates many new things.
** Nutrient solution: a mixture of nutrients and water needed for plants. Similar cultivations are hydroponics and soilless cultivation.
The Argus: Could you explain briefly about MEMS and its applications?
Lee: Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) uses a small sensor built using semiconductor technology, and it is sensitive to any minute stimuli or change.
A smart phone is an example of using MEMS. The motion sensor on the switch screen is made of MEMS. When the sensor senses the phone tilting, it sends a signal to change the screen. Also, just as MEMS is used in very small and sensitive beings like plants; it could be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, a type of neurotic disorder. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) involves a medical device that is made of MEMS in a thin needle shape. By implanting DBS into a patient’s brain, it detects brain frequency changes and gives brain constant electrical shocks.
The Argus: What motivated you to combine MEMS with agriculture? And what products are available for cultivation using MEMS?
Lee: As shown in the paper, we wanted to find a new solution to grow a greater variety of plants regardless of conditions. Thus, we applied microneedle sensors to farming, and the experiment showed that it increased the amount of production and compensated for the problems ─ excessive supply of nutrition solution and energy waste ─ that Smart Farming have.
Almost every crop is available for cultivation using MEMS, even high value products such as palm oil. Likewise, Real Smart Farming could be used to manage extensive farming or farming that requires very delicate care.
The Argus: Was there any trial or error during the research of Real Smart Farm?
Lee: Of course, like all startups would agree, the scale up process from lab to commercial level was challenging. Our team first believed that the fruitful lab results of national projects and researches would lead to successful commercialization. However, when we first installed the sensor for commercialization, the sensor lasted less than one week, so it was difficult to check the exact situation of the plants. To resolve the problem, we tried to find a less stimulative sensor to put in less sensitive parts of plants. Consequently, the sensor lifespan is nearly infinite. Having put in a lot of effort, after over five years, Real Smart Farm is now utilized in a variety of fields.
The Argus: What is the current state and what are the goals of Real Smart Farming?
Lee: Real Smart Farming is not only used in protected agriculture but in forests, orchards, and field environments. For instance, Real Smart Farming was selected as a test bed venture by the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s initiative innovation encouragement policy in May, and microneedle sensors have been installed in Cheonggyecheon Garosu-gil, and other places in Seoul. Installed sensors notify health conditions in real time through the device, allowing for convenient management of plants. Sensors will be equipped throughout the city in the near future. Likewise, MEMS is applicable even to landscaping. Therefore, similar to how Real Smart Farming naturally assimilates into a city, we hope to bring Real Smart Farming closer to areas with more people. Hence, my goal is to make farming easy through MEMS and to further commercialize it so that more people can grow crops not only in rural areas but also in urban areas.
The Argus: What will future agriculture be like?
Lee: I think agriculture, with the development of ICT, will shift from centralized farming to distributive farming where everyone can do it anywhere. People will use Real Smart Farming to farm their own gardens and generate data of their know-how to sell or share with others.
The current practice of agriculture is based on producing local specialties in centralized farming settings and requires sending products far away, making food costs expensive. One example is a densely populated area with no farming in the slums of downtown New Delhi, India where residents have to buy food from far away, making food costs high. Similar problems are rising globally, but with Real Smart Farming, producing cost effective foods in urban areas becomes possible by using excess spaces in cities as farming areas.
The Argus: Could you share some final thoughts for The Argus readers and for youth interested in agriculture?
Lee: We are in the midst of a shift toward distributive farming, and new agricultural technology is speeding up the process. When distributive farming is fully established, we all can be farmers growing crops in gardens and trading datum with neighbors. Thus, I would like to emphasize that the youth will have the key role inhabiting the upcoming era, and thus, we need their attention and active participation.
Real Smart Farming could be the solution to solve youth unemployment and food shortage issues all across the globe. Like Prof. Lee Jung-hoon said, Real Smart Farming could publicize agricultural methods through data transferring and allow the youth to become farmers by profession and cultivate their own food. Therefore, The Argus hopes this article gives readers food for thought on the new phase of agriculture.
By Mun Ji-hyun
Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section