AgriPhotonics in Berlin Brandenburg - a quick overview

Several trends in agri- and horticulture lead to more and more applications of photonic technologies on farms, and along the whole food supply chain. One challenge is the climate change: Increased exposure to sun light changes the fruit development process on fruits leading to sunburn on apples, for example. On the other hand, the growing legal regulation of agrochemicals demands new technologies for weed control. Precision agriculture is one possible response. There, for example, the proper identification of weed requires sophisticated sensor technology, either on the ground, in the air or even on satellites. A third trend is the increased awareness on losses during processing and storing of crops and fruit. Here, optical technology helps to determine the exact state of food and how long it is edible, thus reducing food waste. The new technological developments most often unite a detailed understanding of the processes in plants with sensing and data processing technologies.

The close proximity of diverse research institutions in the German capitol region has sparked a number of successful partnerships in recent years. This has led to company foundations and to a lively regional and international network of academic and industrial partners.

Research and education

A major player in agriphotonics research in the Capital region is the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB). The ATB works with climate, soil and plant data recorded in agricultural production and along the supply chain of plant-based food. Their sensing technology ranges from advanced lab-based microscopy and spectroscopy to mobile spectroscopic systems including time-of-flight analysis and photogrammetry. ATB has developed data processing methods and agronomic models. These models, based on physiological submodels and artificial intelligence, use the sensor data and are aimed at the sustainable intensification of agricultural processes. This includes ecophysiological water and carbon balance, variable rate application of fertilizers, thinning agents and pesticides as well as freshness, storage and packaging optimization.

The ATB is initiator of the bilateral network AGRIPHOTONICS funded by Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Photonics in horticulture

Photonics plays an increasing role in horticultural plant research. Likewise, in agricultural crop cultivation open field horticulture and in large greenhouses could benefit from sensing with flying platforms as e.g. drones or copters. These kinds of applications, however, are in the early development stages. Sensing directly on the plant, however, or fixed sensors in the root zone, soil or substrate, are more common. To create the most optimal conditions for the crop in a given environment various actions can be done. In protected cultivation, in greenhouses and controlled environments, supplementary (electrical) lighting is commonly used. The availability of LED lighting sources is more and more used to create specific light spectra for certain targeted plant responses. With the help of advanced sensing, simulation and lighting technologies, horticulture responds to climate change and to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) especially “improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” (SDG2), “sustainable cities and communities” (SDG11), and “climate action” (SDG13).
In Berlin and Brandenburg, a well-developed community for LED development and lighting solutions (see chapter 2.2 Lighting Technology) meets an agile community of research institutions and startup companies in agri- and horticulture.

The Leibniz Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Crops (IGZ) e.V. for example, hosts research on “Next-generation horticultural systems”. In this group, they investigate among many other aspects, how LED light sources can be optimally used including light recipes for crop growth and quality performance in controlled environments in combination with the other climatic factors.

Several companies exploit already ideas of advanced horticultural concepts. Crocus Labs UG is young startup with a mission is to disrupt the indoor horticulture industry. The company is specialized in providing ultra-high efficiency smart lighting solutions that will significantly reduce the electricity costs related to artificial lighting used in greenhouses, indoor & vertical farms while enabling them to grow a wider variety of crops indoor. As the company controls the design of the entire process in-house from LED devices, sensor PCBs, software components all the way to the luminaires, the products can be customized as per customer needs.

InFarm – Indoor Urban Farming GmbH is specialized in indoor vertical farming technology for easily scalable and rapidly deployable modular farms. The individual farming units are connected and remotely controlled from a central farming platform that gathers up-to-the minute information about the growth of each plant. They are currently working with 30+ of the world’s biggest retailers to grow over 65+ different types of herbs, lettuces, and leafy greens. Infarm has developed novel solutions based on optimized lighting, plant modelling and crops optimisation.

The Stenon GmbH develops a device for mobile soil analysis in agriculture and particularly in vegetable cultivation. This “smart spade” measures a number of soil parameters such as nutrient concentration, pH-value, temperature and humidity in 0 to 30 centimeters. Furthermore, the soil type and its texture are determined. After about 20 seconds, the data is recorded. In the future, the experts at Stenon want to integrate their sensors into regular agricultural tools such as a plow.

When is the right moment for harvesting fruit? And how long is a stored fruit good for sale? To answer such questions, the company Control in applied Physiology CP offers sensor systems which measure fruit development in the field and in storage. Their sensors, for example, can be installed on an apple farm and the farmer can see on his smartphone the current state of his product. Along storage and distribution the technology allows for a quality tracking and certification. The technology has been developed in cooperation with Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB).

Sensing plays an important role within the concept of precision agriculture. There, precision refers to a specific treatment of plants: What if every single plant could get exactly the amount of fertilizer it needs? LOMAGRI GmbH develops a technology that will help farmers to spray precisely on target. They developed a specific sensor that determines the status of plants continuously and thus, pesticide application along the row/path can be reduced by more than 60%. The new sensor detects morphological and physiological information from individual plants and entire rows of plants in real time. Applications are expected in gardening, farming and forestry.

Photonic Insights GmbH is offering multiple sensor solutions for applying multiple spectroscopy methods in agricultural applications. Photonic Insights GmbH designs and builds embedded systems that combine affordable and precise optical sensors for cutting-edge spectroscopy and edge-computed machine learning in the form of handheld devices to support testing without laboratory preparation. Their sensor solutions are specialised for agricultural and eco hydrological use cases.

The article was written by Andreas Thoss.