SupraSensor could be super tool for precision agriculture

The food gap is becoming one of the world's biggest challenges. According to the United Nations, farmers must grow 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed the world's population. Blue River Technology is a small business in Mountain View, California, that's helping to solve this challenge. The company merges robotics, computer vision and machine learning to change the way food is grown and to lift yields from every acre of farmland. Lee Redden, an NSF principal investigator and a founder of Blue River, is leading a research team that's developing robots that use computer vision to recognize and identify the needs of plants and take appropriate action in real time, even in rugged agricultural conditions. For example, the robots can determine whether a crop needs thinning, then spray a killing agent with precision to rid excess plants and thin the field. Blue River's first technology, called LettuceBot 1, is a robot that intelligently and precisely thins lettuce fields.Credit: ©Blue River Technology

Fundamental chemistry research leads to a new sensor that gives farmers a more accurate read on fertilizer needs, avoiding waste

Preserving the environment and developing agricultural products that do not harm unintended targets are top priorities for many scientists and farmers, as well as environmentalists. It’s a new era of crop management known as precision agriculture. It maximizes productivity while minimizing energy use and environmental impacts.

One of the major challenges being addressed by precision agriculture is over-fertilization. About 30 percent of nitrate fertilizer applied to U.S. crops simply washes away. This wastes the fertilizer and the energy used to make it, in addition to posing possible harm to the environment

Support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has led to the development by start-up SupraSensor Technologies of a novel sensor to detect nitrate fertilizer in soil. The SupraSensor device is designed to give farmers a highly accurate, virtually constant stream of data on nitrate levels. The device is an excellent example of highly applied science with roots in basic research — in this case supramolecular chemistry at the University of Oregon.

Supramolecular chemistry is a simple idea of how two or more molecules might interact or bind with one another without forming strong irreversible interactions. A supramolecular interaction is key to how the SupraSensor nitrogen sensor works. The research team has also since developed electronics to store data, wireless capability, even a smart phone app.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF awards #0718242, Phenyl-Acetylene Scaffolding: Experimental, Theoretical, and Materials Studies of New Molecular Systems; and #0545206, CAREER: Supramolecular Main Group Coordination Chemistry. CAREER is NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program. Also related is award #1237240, Innovation Corps (I-Corps): Commercialization of new anion-sensing materials.