Automated Plant Care Technologies, How Do They Work?
Automated plant care technologies are devices capable of “taking care” of plants with little to no human intervention.
Humans and plants have a complex connection extending far back into our joint evolutionary history. This legacy can be seen today as plants provide food, textiles, medicine, and fuel for people and animals across the entire globe. Plant domestication and agriculture allowed humans to develop societies, and our settlements to become more and more complex. As such, our modern cities and cultures rely in part on the stable and reliable production and distribution of food.
Today, our relationship with plants has changed significantly from the early days of our evolution. We developed sophisticated tools and techniques to master the art of plant-care, but still most of the plants we get at home somehow die.
In this article we are going to go over the most common technologies we use for automate plant care, providing a clear guideline to understand their pros and cons when it comes to automated plant care technologies.
What is automated plant care
Automated plant care refers to the capacity of a device of “taking care” of plants with little to no human intervention. Since the day humans first domesticated plants, they tried to find methods to grow them with less resources, better yields, and faster times.
To this end, we experimented for millennia with different techniques and tools, and the progress we made in this regard is simply incredible. Just a few hundred years ago, our crops were a direct function of the weather and the season, while today we can grow food year-round in places where it has never been possible through automated vertical farms.
All of these learnings, technologies and tools we perfected through the years are now starting to get to their new phase: automation. What farmers and growers worldwide have been more and more focusing on is: how can we get the same results with less intensive human labor?
The principle is simple: build a process, optimize it, automate it.
But reality is far more complex than that, and reliable automated plant care is something we can only very recently see starting to appear on the market.
The main reason for this is actually quite straightforward. Every different plant variety has different needs when it comes to anything: from watering cycles, to light intensity, fertilization, and so on. This is only accentuated by where the plant is located: an Aloe Vera in California will need a different treatment than the same plant in Norway on that same day.
This is the main issue with this, is that technologies developed around the concept of efficiency rather than effectiveness. It is more profitable to grow 90% of a crop field than to grow 100% of the same crops in a slightly longer period. This means that the totality of our plant care technologies have a substantial design flow: they are designed for quantity and repeatability and not for being always effective.
While this may be a fine concept in farming, it certainly becomes less so when it comes to ornamentals plants, both in garden and parks but also in homes, hotels, and restaurants.
In these environments we want our automated plant care solution to work for any plant we may chose, at any time, and consistently.
A wick system is a hydroponic growing set-up that revolves around the use of a soft fabric string – similar to a candle – known as a wick.
In a wick system, a cotton or nylon wick absorbs water and nutrients from a solution and supplies it to plants in containers or trays. One end of the wick is inserted through the bottom of the tray or container into the grow medium, and the other end hangs into a reservoir or container housing the nutrient solution. Liquid will flow up the wick until the medium surrounding the roots is damp. Once the medium dries out, the wick will again soak up liquid.
Essentially, the wick system works on the same principle as an oil lamp. Also, unlike most other hydroponic systems, a wick system is passive, meaning there are no moving parts. That means it is not only affordable to set up, but simple to maintain, and less prone to breakdowns and problems.
The wick system has been widely used as automated plant care technology for indoor plants in particular, and its primary benefit are the simplicity and relative low price to set-up and maintain.
When it comes to effectiveness, however, the wick system falls quite short: it is the automated plant care system where plants are more likely to die in the medium/long term. The reason for this, is that wick systems maintain a constantly humid soil around plants roots, which in time suffocates the roots and promotes root rot – condition almost always deadly to most plants.
Plants tend to require water provided in cycles, some more frequent than others, but most of them – unlike some particular varieties like Peace Lily – cannot survive with a constantly dump soil.
A timer-based automated plant care system is a non-hydroponic growing set-up that revolves around the use of a timer to control the plants watering schedule.
Unlike a wick system, timers ensure that the plants are only watered when needed and some more advanced timers allow you to set specific amounts of water as well as different “watering zones” for plants with similar characteristics.
Essentially, timers can be extremely effective when set-up and controlled properly, but they entail all the complexity of manually watering plants: you need to know very well what each plant needs, otherwise you will just be setting your plants on a slow path of suffering and – eventually – they’ll probably die.
Another issue with timers is that they are hardly embedded within the planter, but rater need to be attached to an external power supply as well as water tap. This makes them quite obnoxious to set-up in home environments or in commercial venues for they complex and difficult to hide set-up.
While timers solve – in theory – the issue of “differentiation” when it comes to different plants’ needs, they do so in a way that creates a very high knowledge barrier for the everyday person.
Soil Moisture Sensors
Introducing soil moisture sensors to an automated plant care system revolves around the use of a set of electronical sensors to monitor one of the parameters most important for the plants’ growth: water.
Soil Moisture sensors ensure that the plants are only watered when they actually need it, allowing the system to optimize humidity for each different plant in different environments.
Essentially, sensors are one of the most advanced systems to monitor plants health and can be extremely effective when set-up and controlled properly.
The main issue with soil moisture sensors are two.
On one side, while monitoring and controlling soil moisture levels is one of the most important aspects for growing a healthy plant, it is hardly the only one. Light intensity, fertilization, temperature, humidity, and day-night cycle all play a vital role in sustaining plant life, and they certainly cannot be outright ignored by having soil moisture sensors.
On the other side, sensors have a similar problem than timers: if whatever levels of “optimal soil moisture” you specified for your systems are not correct for that plant, the system will undoubtedly kill the plant in the long run.
Although sensors represent the most advanced way of monitoring a plant’s health, the main variables still out of the equation make soil moisture sensors almost useless if not coupled with proper “knowledge”.
The latest and most advanced automated plant care systems revolve around the use of both sensors and artificial intelligence to monitor all the parameters most important for the plants’ growth: water, light, temperature, and fertilizer.
Artificial intelligence sensors ensure that the plants are analyzed taking into consideration their specific variety, origin, as well as the local conditions they are subjected to. So that they are only watered when they actually need it. Some devices like Koru also use Machine Learning to “train” the algorithms, allowing the system to learn from itself and get better over time.
Essentially, artificial intelligence represents the most advanced automated plant care technology to this day, and solves all the main challenges related to growing and maintaining different plants indifferent conditions.
The main advantage of artificial intelligence over other automated plant care technologies is that it completely removes the need of any knowledge from the user and still guarantees impeccable results.
While the sensors monitor all the important variables and provide real-time feedback, the system is constantly storing data and learning to get more precise, efficient, and effective with each different plant.
Things like light intensity, fertilization levels, temperature swings, ambient humidity, and day-night cycles all become important variables that define the most optimal environment for that specific plant, at that specific time, and the device provides exactly that.
Choosing what’s right for you
At the end of the day, automated plant care technologies come down to what is each person’s specific need and plant-care knowledge.
If you are a green-thumb, love spending time with your plants and can keep them alive even when you are on holidays, you are probably the best plant care system your plants will ever need.
If, on the other hand, you love plants but somehow keep killing them, considering an automated plant care system may be a great choice for you, especially if your aim is to enjoy the numerous benefits of indoor plants, rather than learning how to take care of them.
Regardless from how good you are with plants, it’s clear that adding them to your home will improve both the décor as well as the overall health of your environment.
If you are just starting, check our list of the Best Indoor Houseplants For Every Home And Skill Level.
When it comes to plants, automated plant care systems usually have poor results with them, as they cannot cope with the complexity of the different needs of each different plant. Only truly smart plant care systems like KORU can adapt to each plant's different needs, helping them to thrive by measuring light, temperature, humidity and soil moisture.