Like a silent battle cry, plants call out to signal they are under siege as a warning to other plants and to call in reinforcements to fend off the invasion.
How does this communication work? What else are plants doing to protect themselves from disease and predators alike? In our latest podcast, Natalie Aguirre, a PhD candidate and plant physiology and chemical ecology researcher at Texas A&M University, dives into her research on pathogen infection, water stress, and how plants communicate and defend themselves.
Natalie Aguirre graduated with a degree in biology from Pepperdine University, where she completed an honors thesis conducting research on the interaction of drought stress and pathogen infection in chaparral shrubs. She then spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Spain, studying the effect of water stress on Dutch Elm Disease. Most recently, Natalie worked for the Everglades Foundation, creating educational programs and materials about the Florida Everglades.
What was the life of a scientist like before modern measurement techniques? In our latest podcast, Campbell Scientific’s Ed Swiatek and METER’s Dr. Gaylon Campbell discuss their association with three pioneers of environmental measurement.
Learn what it was like to practice science on the cutting edge. Discover the creative lengths they went to and what crazy things they cobbled together to get the measurements they needed.
Dr. Yossi Osroosh, Precision Ag Engineer in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University, continues (see part 1) to discuss the strengths and limitations of IoT technologies for irrigation water management.
Informed irrigation decisions require real-time data from networks of soil and weather sensors at desired resolution and at a reasonable cost.
LoRaWAN (a vendor-managed solution see part 1) is ideal for monitoring applications where sensors need to send data only a couple of times per day with very high battery life at a very low cost. Cellular IoT, on the other hand, works best for agricultural applications where sensors are required to send data more frequently and irrigation valves need to be turned on/off. Low-Power Wide-Area Networking (LPWAN) technologies need gateways or base stations for functioning. The gateway uploads data to a cloud server through traditional cellular networks like 4G. Symphony Link has an architecture very similar to LoRaWAN with higher degree of reliability appropriate for industrial applications. The power budget of LTE Cat-M1 9 (a network operator LPWAN) is 30% higher per bit than technologies like SigFox or LoRaWAN, which means more expensive batteries are required. Some IoT technologies like LoRa and SigFox only support uplink suited for monitoring while cellular IoT allows for both monitoring and control. LTE-M is a better option for agricultural weather and soil moisture sensor applications where more data usage is expected.
NB-IoT is more popular in EU and China and LTE Cat-M1 in the U.S. and Japan. T-Mobile is planning to deploy NB-IoT network in the U.S. by mid-2018 following a pilot project in Las Vegas. Verizon and AT&T launched LTE Cat-M1 networks last year and their IoT-specific data plans are available for purchase. Verizon and AT&T IoT networks cover a much greater area than LoRa or Sigfox. An IoT device can be connected to AT&T’s network for close to $1.00 per month, and to Verizon’s for as low as $2 per month for 1MB of data. A typical sensor message generally falls into 10-200 bytes range. With the overhead associated with protocols to send the data to the cloud, this may reach to 1KB. This can be used as a general guide to determine how much data to buy from a network operator.
Studies show there is a potential for over 50% water savings using sensor-based irrigation scheduling methods.
What the future holds
Many startup companies are currently focused on the software aspect of IoT, and their products lack sensor technology. The main problem they have is that developing good sensors is hard. Most of these companies will fail before the batteries of their sensors die. Few will survive or prevail in the very competitive IoT market. Larger companies that own sensor technologies are more concerned with the compatibility and interoperability of these IoT technologies and will be hesitant to adopt them until they have a clear picture. It is going to take time to see both IoT and accurate soil/plant sensors in one package in the market.
With the rapid growth of IoT in other areas, there will be an opportunity to evaluate different IoT technologies before adopting them in agriculture. As a company, you may be forced to choose specific IoT technology. Growers and consultants should not worry about what solution is employed to transfer data from their field to the cloud and to their computers or smartphones, as long as quality data is collected and costs and services are reasonable. Currently, some companies are using traditional cellular networks. It is highly likely that they will finally switch to cellular IoT like LTE Cat-M1. This, however, may potentially increase the costs in some designs due to the higher cost of cellular IoT data plans.
The PHYTOS 31 Leaf Wetness Sensor was designed to measure the presence and duration of water on leaf surfaces. However, Dr. Bruce Bugbee, professor of Crop Physiology at Utah State University, noticed that his leaf wetness sensor revealed interesting phenomena associated with some precipitation events. Here is what he observed on a recent day at the USU Environmental Observatory in Logan, Utah
It is possible to have a day with numerous 0.1 mm increments of rain, followed by some evaporation, in which a rain gauge would not record any rain during the day.
“Recent data from our weather station provided two examples of the offset in measurement associated with tipping bucket rain gauges. It started raining on campus last night at exactly 20:00 hours, as indicated by the response of the leaf wetness sensor (Figure 1). The first 0.1 mm tip of the rain gauge occurred about 25 minutes later (Figure 2). The resolution for most high-quality tipping bucket rain gauges is listed as 0.1 mm, but this is not the resolution for the first 0.1 mm of rain.
Forests along the California coast and offshore islands experience coastal fog in summer, when conditions are otherwise warm and dry. Since fog-water inputs directly augment water availability to forests during the dry season, a potential reduction of fog due to climate change would place trees at a higher risk of water stress and drought-induced mortality. Dr. Sara Baguskas completed her Ph.D. research in the geography department at UC Santa Barbara on how variation in fog-water inputs impact the water relations of a rare, endemic tree species, Bishop pine, located on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. The goal of her study was to enhance our ability to predict how coastal forests may respond to climate change by better understanding how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.
Dr. Baguskas’ study seeks a better understanding of how fog-water inputs influence the water budget of coastal forests.
Santa Cruz Island supports the southern extent of the species range in California, thus it is where we would expect to see a reduction in the species range in a warmer, drier, and possibly less foggy future. To advance our mechanistic understanding of how coastal fog influences the physiological function of Bishop pines, Dr. Baguskas conducted a controlled greenhouse experiment where she manipulated fog-water inputs to potted Bishop pine saplings during a three-week drydown period. She installed soil moisture (VWC) sensors horizontally into the side of several pots of sapling trees at two different depths (2 cm and 10 cm) and exposed the pines to simulated fog events with a fog machine.
In one group of plants, Baguskas let fog drip down to the soil, and in another treatment, she prevented fog drip to the soil so that only the canopies were immersed in fog. She adds, “Leaf wetness sensors were an important complement to soil moisture probes in the second treatment because I needed to demonstrate that during fog events, the leaves were wet and soil moisture did not change.” Additionally, Baguskas used a photosynthesis and fluorescence system to measure photosynthetic rates in each group.
The fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines.
Dr. Baguskas found that the fog events had a significant, positive effect on the photosynthetic rate and capacity of the pines. The combination of fog immersion and fog drip had the greatest effect on photosynthetic rates during the drydown period, so, in essence, she determined that fog drip to the soil slows the impact of drydown.
“But,” she says, “when I looked at fog immersion alone, when the plant canopies were wet by fog with no drip to the soil, I also saw a significant improvement in the photosynthetic rates of these plants compared to the trees that received no fog at all, suggesting that there could have been indirect foliar uptake of water through these leaves which enhanced performance.” An alternative interpretation of that, Baguskas adds, is that nighttime fog events reduced soil evaporation rates, resulting in less evaporative loss of soil moisture.
Dr. Baguskas says her “canopy immersion alone” data are consistent with other research: Todd Dawson, Gregory Goldsmith, Kevin Simmonin, Carter Berry, and Emily Limm have all found that when you wet plant leaves, it has a physiological effect, suggesting the plants are taking water up through their leaves and not relying as much on soil moisture. (These authors performed different types of experiments, but their papers serve as reference studies). Baguskas says, “My results suggest that is what’s going on, but it’s not as definitive as other studies that have actually worked on tracking the water through leaves using a stable isotope approach.”
Though Dr. Baguskas did not monitor soil temperature in this study, she says that in the future, she will always combine temperature data with soil moisture data. She comments, “Consistently, the soil moisture in the “canopy-immersed only” plants was slightly elevated over the soil moisture in the control plants. It made me wonder if this was a biologically meaningful result. Does it support the fact that if plants are taking up water through their leaves, they don’t rely on as much soil moisture? Or did my treatment change soil temperature, and is that having a confounding effect on my results? What I’ve learned from this, is that in the future I will always use soil probes with temperature sensors because you may not know until you see your results if temperature might be important.”
Future Fog Studies
Baguskas is a USDA-NIFA postdoctoral Research Fellow working with Dr. Michael Loik in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz. She continues to study coastal fog, but now in strawberry fields. Her current research questions are focused on integrating coastal fog into water-use decisions in coastal California agriculture. She loves the work and continues to rely on soil moisture sensors to make meaningful and reliable environmental measurements in the field and greenhouse.
In July of 2013, Lav Khot and his team were in the field looking at how cherries were picked, weighed, and transported, when suddenly a helicopter began circling around a nearby orchard block. When Dr. Khot asked the grower about it he said, “There was a rain last night, and we are trying to dry the tree canopies.” The grower told Khot that cherries are susceptible to cracking if moisture stays on the fruit too long, so they hire helicopters to fly over their orchards to remove water from the fruit and leaves, hoping to prevent fruit loss.
The economic impact of solving the cherry cracking problem could be huge as growers now suffer heavy losses each year.
Fresh market cherries are a lucrative business. That’s how the growers can afford the approximately $25K it costs to rent the helicopters every season. They try to do everything that they can to stop any cracking or splitting, but interestingly, Dr. Khot says grower decisions are influenced completely by emotion. “If there is a rain event, the farmer will become anxious, and they will hire pilots to fly the helicopter.”
Dr. Khot wondered if he could help the cherry growers make their decisions based on real data instead. He and his postdoc, Dr. Jianfeng Zhou, are using leaf wetness sensors to determine if and how long water is present on the tree canopies after a rain event. Dr. Khot hopes that the data from these sensors will help growers decide whether or not it makes sense to fly the helicopter.
Why the cherries split
Not all varieties of cherry crack, but high sugar content varieties do as the skin is thin during maturation. There are two hypotheses associated with fruit splitting or cracking:
Irrigation: High water availability in the soil as the fruit is maturing (a few weeks before harvest) encourages trees to take up more water and causing the fruit to split.
Rainwater: Rain collects in the cherry stem bowl or hangs off the bottom and is slowly absorbed into the fruit along the osmotic potential gradient. The fruit will start to split due to increased pressure inside the skin.
Dr. Khot and his team will use soil moisture sensors to investigate the first hypothesis with the object of improving irrigation management, especially as harvest approaches. And he’s getting some support: “Dr. Matt Whiting (colleague at the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Washington State University) is helping us understand this cracking phenomenon from the soil perspective. He is doing work on deficit irrigation (reducing the rate of irrigation below optimal) towards harvest time and seeing how that relates to cracking. Also, the WSU CAHNRS ERI (Emerging Research Issues grant), which supports high-risk research, has funded us $75,000, along with Decagon who is supporting us with their sensors.”
Last Year’s Research
There are two approaches to drying canopies. One uses a sprayer that produces a cross-wind that moves sideways through the canopies, while the other uses the downwash from helicopter blades. Last year, Dr. Khot and his research assistant experimented with crosswind velocities to see how much wind was being generated and how much water was really being dispersed. Dr. Khot commented, “Last season we went out to the WSU orchard and ran the sprayer at two settings in order to see how water was removed and how much wind was coming through the canopies for a given amount of time.” They had good success at both removing the water from the trees and measuring it with the leaf wetness sensors. But, they started the measurements after the cherries had matured, so weren’t able to tie it to cracking.
This Year’s Experiment
One issue with using helicopters is that they are extremely dangerous. Accidents are not uncommon, and unfortunately pilots have died. This year the team will also evaluate the efficacy of a mid-size, unmanned helicopter in order to test if it can produce enough downwash to dry the cherries and compare it with manned helicopters. Dr. Khot says, “The helicopters are large and difficult to fly close to the canopies, but we can program the unmanned drone to fly close to the canopy and get rid of the water safely.” Digital Harvest and Yamaha, who are supporting this aspect of the research, have received an exemption from the FAA so they can test their unmanned helicopter.
Differing Tree Architectures
Dr. Khot’s team did their first experiments on traditional cherry tree architectures (imagine a typical tree), but this year they will perform their experiments on trees that are trained into a “Y” shape, or completely vertical.
These trees represent traditional tree architecture, but this year researchers will perform their experiments on trees that are trained into a “Y” shape, or completely vertical.
Researchers have developed these new architectures for ease of harvesting and management, but Dr. Zhou says that there will be less canopy variability and thus more interpretable results compared to the traditional tree architecture where wind velocity is more heterogeneous throughout the canopy.
Dr. Khot says the economic impact of solving the cherry cracking problem could be huge as growers now suffer heavy losses each year. One former grower underscored this when he noted they lost one crop in every four. But, there could be other benefits as well. The implications of this research could lead to solving other grower problems such as disease and pest management. “WSU already has a good AgWeatherNet program where we monitor the weather outside the trees at different locations, but not inside the canopies. If we had some smart sensing equipment like the leaf wetness sensor sitting in the canopy monitoring the wetness level over a 24-hour cycle, then we could develop some models based on the wetness and relate them to the number of pests at different locations in the orchard. That is something every grower can benefit from.”
The Namib Desert on the Southwestern coast of Africa is hyper-arid in terms of rainfall but experiences frequent coastal fog events. The fog has been suggested to provide sufficient water for survival to certain plants which are endemic to the Namib, some of which occur only in the fog zone (up to 60 km inland).
Dr. Keir Soderberg wanted to measure how much fog water plants were taking up either through surficial roots or their leaves.
Dr. Keir Soderberg, former researcher at the University of Virginia (now a consultant at S.S. Papadopulos & Associates), wanted to use stable isotopes to measure how much fog water plants were taking up either through surficial roots or their leaves. To enrich his data set, he decided to use leaf wetness sensors to show when the fog was occurring. He also wondered if he could use the leaf wetness sensors to distinguish between fog and dew.
The Namib Desert
Keir set up five fog monitoring stations along a climate gradient in the central Namib. Each measured leaf wetness, air temperature, and relative humidity measurements along with solar radiation and soil parameters (moisture, temperature, and electrical conductivity). Stable isotope analysis of samples was also used to help quantify the amounts of fog, groundwater, and soil water that plants were using.
Dew or Fog:
Keir says, “We began collecting one-minute data to look at the different patterns of how the water was being deposited on the leaf wetness sensor. The dew tended to be more of a gradual wetting, but with the fog you would see these cyclical waves of steep wetting and then a little bit of a drying on the sensor.” Keir says he could look at those patterns and correlate them with visual evidence from his visits to the Namib during fog or dew events, though those wetting patterns may be specific to this location.
Keir also tried to determine the volume of water deposited on the leaf wetness sensors. He did a calibration in the lab by spraying water on the sensor and then weighing it. He said, “It was sort of a trial and error thing. I found the performance was definitely sensor specific. You have to get an individual calibration, but I felt the uncertainty could be controlled.”
In comparing different methods of measuring fog deposition, Keir concluded that it is difficult to compare across measurement methods. “There’s a lot of variability between methods, even if you are confident in your own device and its accuracy.” This gives the advantage to the most common measurement device, the Standard Fog Collector, since much of the work done through the years has used these instruments. However, the cylindrical-style collectors have the advantage of being insensitive to wind direction.
In spite of this, Keir admits he’s still interested in seeing if he can get good dew collection data from leaf wetness sensors. He says, “I went on from Namibia to a research station in Kenya where we had an eddy covariance flux tower. Though there is no fog in Kenya, I convinced them to put leaf wetness sensors up and down the tower to collect data on dew deposition. We left the sensors out there and have been collecting one-minute data for a while. There’s this massive dataset out there that we still need to look at.”
Keir collaborated on a paper for The Journal of Arid Environments, called “The Nature of Moisture at Gobabeb, in the Central Namib Desert,” a compilation of different fog and dew collection techniques over the years, including leaf wetness sensors, for automating the identification of fog events. You can find it here. New fog monitoring stations are going up in the Namib through the programs FogLifeand FogNet.
For a basic understanding of the role that fog plays in plant and ecosystem processes, read this article by Dr. Chris Still, who has studied this issue for many years in the Channel Islands National Park off of the coast of California.