New technology could help farmers detect plant diseases using smartphones

A general view of the new season Radish Crop at Feltwell Growers Farm, Norfolk. The British salad season has come early as th
A general view of the new season Radish Crop at Feltwell Growers Farm, Norfolk. The British salad season has come early as the first harvest of British radishes hits Sainsbury’s shelves today, ten days earlier than expected due to the recent mild weather. Norfolk farmer Scott Watson oversees the first British radish harvest of the year, which will be landing in Sainsbury’s stores today. The grower has supplied the supermarket with fresh salads for 57 years. Scott Watson inspects his radishes for Sainsbury’s on a farm in Norfolk. The harvest of the colourful crop, which is earlier than ever this year, hits stores today, marking the start of the British salad season.

New technology that could help farmers quickly spot diseases in plants using smartphones has been developed by researchers.

The handheld device for identifying problems with crops, which was designed at North Carolina State University, can be plugged into a mobile phone and used to analyse compounds that plants release through their leaves.

Diagnosing diseases in plants currently takes “days or weeks” as samples have to be sent to a lab for a molecular analysis to take place, according to the university in the US.

The device can be plugged into a smartphone (Zheng Li/NC State University/PA)

Jean Ristaino, a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University, said: “Our technology will help farmers identify diseases more quickly, so they can limit the spread of the disease and related crop damage.

“We are now ready to scale up the technology.”

To use the technology, a farmer would have to place a leaf from a plant they suspect of being diseased into a capped test tube for 15 minutes to catch compounds released while it breathes.

Sustainable farming
The technology could be improved by developing region-specific tests, according to a researcher (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The gas from the test tube can then be pumped into a reader device, which contains a paper strip embedded with chemicals that can change colour to identify specific diseases.

Once plugged into a smartphone, the user can see the readings with a camera app.

Researchers managed to use the device to detect the pathogen which caused the Irish famine two days after they infected tomatoes with the disease, according to the university.

There is “nothing like” the reader device currently available for sale, according to Qingshan Wei, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University, who added: “We’ve shown that the technology works.”

The device could be improved by developing tests for specific regions to help identify diseases that are common in particular locations, he added.

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