Tiny crop-health sensors could reduce grocery costs

The sensor system can rapidly switch between edge detection – imaging the outline of an object, such as a fruit – and extracting detailed infrared information, without the need for creating large volumes of data and using bulky external processors. Credit: Lincoln Clark, ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS).

A team of international engineers has developed a compact, lightweight sensor system with infrared imaging capabilities that could revolutionize crop monitoring.

This flat-optics technology can be easily attached to a drone, allowing for remote crop assessment.

The innovation has the potential to replace traditional optical lens applications for environmental sensing in various industries.

These advanced sensors could help lower grocery costs by enabling farmers to precisely identify which crops need irrigation, fertilization, or pest control.

This targeted approach could lead to higher yields and reduce the need for a one-size-fits-all strategy in farming.

The sensor system rapidly switches between edge detection—capturing the outline of objects like fruits—and detailed infrared imaging.

This capability allows farmers to gather more information about potential pest infestations without generating large amounts of data or requiring bulky external processors.

Engineers from the City University of New York (CUNY), the University of Melbourne, RMIT University, and the ARC Center of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems (TMOS) collaborated on this research.

Their findings are published in Nature Communications in a paper titled “Reconfigurable image processing metasurfaces with phase-change materials.”

How does the sensor system work? The prototype sensor system features a filter made from a thin layer of vanadium dioxide, which can switch between edge detection and detailed infrared imaging. This innovation was engineered by TMOS Chief Investigator Professor Madhu Bhaskaran and her team at RMIT in Melbourne.

“Materials like vanadium dioxide add fantastic tuning capabilities to make devices ‘smart’,” said Professor Bhaskaran. “When the temperature of the filter changes, the vanadium dioxide transforms from an insulating state to a metallic one, allowing the image to shift from a filtered outline to an unfiltered infrared view.”

These materials are ideal for future flat-optics devices that can replace traditional lenses in environmental sensing applications. They are perfect for drones and satellites that require low size, weight, and power capacity. RMIT holds a US patent and has a pending Australian patent application for producing vanadium dioxide films, which may have a broad range of uses.

Dr. Michele Cotrufo, the lead author of the study, highlighted the significance of the system’s ability to switch between processing operations, from edge detection to capturing detailed infrared images. “While recent demonstrations have achieved analog edge detection using metasurfaces, most devices are static and cannot be dynamically altered or controlled,” said Dr. Cotrufo, who conducted his research at CUNY.

“The ability to dynamically reconfigure processing operations is crucial for metasurfaces to compete with digital image processing systems. This is what we have developed.”

This innovative sensor technology holds promise for more efficient and cost-effective farming, potentially leading to cheaper groceries and better resource management in agriculture.