The European Space Agency (ESA) said this was a world first and eventually such sensors could be used to connect devices in remote locations to send and receive data as part of the internet of things (IoT).
The device can inform farmers about the conditions of their crops to help increase yield, and enable retailers to gain detailed information about potential harvests, it said.
It transmits data on air humidity, soil moisture and temperature, enabling field-by-field reporting from agricultural land, rice fields or other aquatic environments.
The extremely low power device, which transmits to satellites in low-Earth orbit, was developed by Dutch company Plant-e and UK and Netherlands firm Lacuna Space, under the ESA Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program.
This combined Plant-e's energy harvesting technology with Lacuna's energy-efficient equipment.
Here’s how it works. Plants produce organic matter through photosynthesis, but only part of this matter is used for plant growth. The rest is excreted into the soil through the plant’s roots.
In the soil, bacteria around the roots break down this organic matter, releasing electrons as a waste by-product. Technology developed by Plant-e harvests these electrons to power small electrical devices.
Chief executive and co-founder of Lacuna Space Rob Spurrett said this opened a new era in sustainable satellite communications.
“There are many regions in the world that are difficult to reach, which makes regular maintenance expensive and the use of solar power impossible,” he said.
“Through this technology, we can help people, communities and companies in those regions to improve their lives and businesses.”
Marjolein Helder, chief executive of Plant-e, said this collaboration showed how effective plant-electricity already was at its current state of development.
“We hope this inspires others to consider plant electricity as a serious option,” she said.
Frank Zeppenfeldt, who works on future satellite communication systems at ESA, said, “We are very enthusiastic about this demonstration that combines biotechnology and space technology.
“A number of new opportunities for satellite-based internet of things will be enabled by this. It will help to collect small data points in agricultural, logistic, maritime and transportation applications – where terrestrial connectivity is not always available.”
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