A WA-engineered device that indicates optimum water levels in plants could help the local viticulture sector perfect the State’s much-vaunted wines.

Instrumentation engineer and wine enthusiast Ramin Rafiei says the device, known as PLATYPUS, is able to show whether grape vines are under or overwatered, long before problems are visible.

PLATYPUS, a handheld sensor similar in size to a smartphone, won Dr Rafiei the Australian Government science and innovation award for young people in agriculture.

At the heart of this sensor is a miniaturised optical spectrometer which is the culmination of close to a decade’s work by the Microelectronics Research Group at the University of WA.

“Optical spectrometers are in widespread use in the agriculture and food industries, ” Dr Rafiei says.

“These spectrometers are generally bound to the laboratory environment and used offline for post-production testing and research due to their large bulk and high cost.

“A unit typically costs tens of thousands and has a footprint as large as an office desk.”

Dr Rafiei, an associate professor of engineering at UWA and a former nuclear physicist, says the cost and weight reduction was possible because of the team’s breakthrough in reducing the size of a spectrometer down to the width of a human hair.

He cannot estimate how much the sensor would cost if it went into commercial production but expects a dramatic reduction in price if it is manufactured using the same high-precision batch manufacturing techniques used to make computer chips.

“While a long development path lies ahead, this low-cost technology will enable intelligent irrigation at each vineyard, ” he says. “This low-cost portable technology has the potential to revolutionise farm management, by making intelligent agriculture accessible to all farmers.

“My passion for the development of new generation sensors originated as a nuclear physicist.

“These sensors are now being used for applications as diverse as advancing our understanding of the universe to radiological threat detection but these days my focus is on advanced sensors for agriculture.”

It is not just grape growers who stand to benefit, with the device potentially useful to a range of farmers.

The Microelectronics Research Group is currently assessing its suitability for the measurement of moisture and protein content in grains such as wheat, as well as nutrients and trace elements.

The device collects light reflected off the surface that it is trying to measure.

“So by measuring the light reflected off a grapevine leaf the device will tell you if the plant is stressed and needs to be watered, ” Dr Rafiei says.

“And PLATYPUS will detect water stress before it becomes visible to the human eye.

“If you wait until you can see whether a grapevine needs water, you have already lost the opportunity to correct it.

“And a bad harvest means bad wine.”

It could be deployed as a hand-held device or aboard a drone or tractor. It works by talking wirelessly to a smartphone. Dr Rafiei expects field trials within a year.


© The West Australian

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