Good soils guarantee high yields in agriculture that are as unpolluted as possible. Traditionally, individual samples have to be laboriously collected and analyzed. In the future, swarms of tiny robots – intelligent seeds or I-seeds for short – will perform this task much faster and more easily. Made from environmentally friendly and biodegradable materials, they will decompose by themselves after analysis. A European consortium is now pursuing this goal as part of the EU project I-Seed, which was launched at the beginning of the year.
Broad soil distribution
The researchers from the Italian Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa and four other partner institutes are inspired by natural seeds for this task. Only a few millimeters in size, the bionic I-Seeds are supposed to imitate the natural flight behavior and are distributed by the dozen over a floor area.
On the ground, they then detect pollutants such as mercury or heavy metals, moisture, the CO2 content, temperature and water quality. The sensors required for this should consist, for example, of gold-based nanoparticles or other luminescent and biologically harmless oxides. “The sensors work completely passively and do not need their own energy source,” says Tobias Kraus, an expert on nanocomposites at the Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken.
Reading by fluorescence
The researchers want to use drones to read out the soil data from the numerous I-seeds. The principle: the drones use laser light to stimulate the sensor materials in the intelligent seeds to glow, more precisely to fluorescence. These light signals themselves depend on the pollutants or environmental conditions present in the soil. After the drones have received these light signals, they are evaluated promptly and thus provide reliable data on soil quality.
The work on the small seed robots is still at the very beginning. The researchers working with Tobias Kraus have already been able to identify some of the materials that can be used as sensors. The Italian colleagues also developed the first concepts for the ideal shape of the bionic I-Seeds. With funding of just under four million euros, I-Seeds are to be developed as ready for use as possible by the end of 2024.