Workshop September 24th 2018

Role of Photonics in Agriculture & Food Production

Discussion Paper in preparation for the workshop

Last updated: September 18th 2018

A joint workshop "Agriculture and Food" organised by Photonics21, PhotonDelta, PhotonicsNL and Wageningen University will be held on Monday 24th September 2018. The meeting will be held in Meeting Room Plaza, at the entrance to Building 125 on Wageningen University campus.

This is an active brainstorming session rather than a conference. This discussion paper is a working document prepared by PhotonDelta on behalf of the other partners.

The workshop is being organised in the context of a new Photonics Multiannual Strategic Roadmap being prepared as part of the new European Framework Programme Horizon Europe. The aim of our workshop is to identify the future research and innovation challenges for photonics in the field of agriculture and food production and processing.

This interactive magazine is intended as a background briefing before the event and will become a contribution to the workshop report after the event. It is dynamic and is being updated regularly.

Please note: Registration for the workshop is required but free of charge. Workshop participants need to cover their own travel costs. Please bring real-world examples of who is doing what in your sector and why this is relevant to the Smart Agri-tech Sector.

Photonics and its contribution to the Smart Agri-tech Sector

At the second World Technology Mapping Forum (June 20th 2018) in Enschede, Rick van de Zedde of Wageningen University explained the contribution photonics may play in the Smart Agri-Tech Sector. He covers automated quality measurements, precision horticulture, phenotyping and robotics.

Outreach from the Pacific Dairy Industry

John Harvey is CEO of Southern Photonics, Auckland, New Zealand. He explains the role that photonics is playing in the dairy industry in New Zealand and specifically what kind of collaboration they are looking for from the Netherlands photonics ecosystem. Video made during the recent WTMF in Enschede.

John explains the unmet market need in the international animal breeding industry for an affordable and effective sperm sex sorting product. Engender Technologies Limited is a New Zealand company that has developed a technology to separate X- and Y-bearing bull sperm cells. This technology is expected to be low cost and cause minimal discernible damage to the cells. Sex sorting is expected to sustainably accelerate genetic gain and improve cost efficiencies in large animal reproduction.

Understanding the plans for NPEC at the Wageningen University Facilities

Rick van de Zedde explains the plans for Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre (NPEC) as part of the National Roadmap for Large-scale Scientific Infrastructure of the Dutch government. The NPEC facility is an initiative of Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research. NPEC provides a versatile modular platform that will enable Dutch and international scientists, both academic and R&D, to carry out accurate high-throughput phenotyping: studies of plant performance in relation to relevant biotic and abiotic factors across a range of scales, from molecule to crop, from nm to km. NPEC is an integrated, national research facility housed by Wageningen University & Research and Utrecht University and is co-funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for 10 years with a contribution of €11 M. The total budget of NPEC will be in the region of €22 Million.


NPEC focusses especially on the understanding of the impact of the environment on plant growth and generates a wide range of different plant phenotypes. NPEC enables large-scale and high-precision monitoring to generate data for better understanding of plant-environment response, and its genetic control. NPEC offers multi-scale phenotyping to analyse plant performance under diverse environmental conditions and to characterise the traits contributing to performance in these multi-environment scenarios.


NPEC will allow the study of plants in relation to biotic and abiotic factors, including plant-microbiome interactions, plant-plant competition, plant diseases and exposure to a multitude of variable abiotic environmental conditions, such as light quality, irradiance levels, nutrient supply, temperature, humidity, soil pH and atmospheric CO2 levels. The performance of plants (i.e. root and shoot system development and architecture, disease resistance, herbivore attraction, irradiation use efficiency, water and nutrient use efficiency, plant-microbiome establishment, etc.) can be examined using a range of sensors, providing data from the molecular level to the level of field crops and ecosystems.


Initiated by Wageningen University & Research and Utrecht University, NPEC will serve the Dutch and international academic community and private enterprises interested in eco-phenotyping research. Dutch plant sciences research groups, more than 50 companies and several international research institutes and universities supported the NPEC proposal, and expressed their interest in acquiring access to the platform of enabling technologies provided by the facility for their research. Breeding companies, farmers and growers also have the need to understand and exploit this interaction to maximize their productivity and yields.

NPEC comprises six complementary, experimental modules

  1. In the precision mesocosm–level ECOtron (ECO) plant-plant and plant-microbe interactions both above- and belowground will be studied, at a level of cm to µm.
  2. The Plant-Microbe Interactions phenotyping module (PMI) will be used for high throughput research on plant-microbe interactions, from the molecular level up to plant organ level.
  3. The Multi-Environment climate chamber module (ME) has been designed to study the molecular basis of plant responses to multiple environmental factors.
  4. The High-Throughput Phenotyping climate chamber module (HTP) allows for automated, high-throughput screening of plant genotypes under highly controlled environmental conditions.
  5. In the GreenHouse phenotyping (GH) module, integrated whole-plant phenotyping will be carried out, testing numerous crops, from seedling to harvest.
  6. The Open-Field phenotyping (OF) module provides an outdoor mobile drone- and vehicle-based phenotyping system that can study individual plants in small plots or large fields.

5GPhotonics will herald a new era in Wireless Sensors

At Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), we think that light millimeter wave enabled support for robotics will be one of first large scale deployments for 5G. In the discussions in Europe around Industry 4.0, we see that engineers are looking at ways to streamline production facilities. Today, many sensors used to monitor a process are somehow read or actuated via fixed cables. That brings with it both mechanical constraints as well as inefficiencies in scalability and interoperability. If you can replace the cables with low latency, high capacity wireless sensors, then optimization is much faster and cheaper.

Especially in the food processing industry, sensors play a very important role in accurately measuring quantities and quality of ingredients. Food processing factories usually work for several clients, each of which comes to them for let’s say a batch of 50,000 bottles of a certain recipe. Once that is done, the faster the system can adjust to the needs of the next client, the greater throughput of the system. Photonics based 5G Wireless may offer faster connections (milliseconds) which over a production period can add up to considerable time savings.

You can also imagine that smart sensors can also learn the next assignment from a private network in the cloud. This means the robots don't have to be pre-programmed, but learn what they need to know at the moment they need to execute something. We envisage that such networks will operate in the 26-28 GHz range and we are teaming up with selected industrial partners to validate the infrastructure model. We're also talking to the High-Tech Systems Centre in Eindhoven as part of their Digital Food Processing Initiative. But you can imagine that self-learning robots could also be used in other parts of the high-tech industry where very precise repetition of a process is needed or where robots need to operate under hazardous conditions for humans.

An example

One concrete case which comes from the project Celta is the monitoring of moisture and water content in many parts of Spain. Without water many of the native plants and trees will eventually die. And for efficient irrigation, the moisture content needs to be monitored at various levels – the roots in the soil, on the surface, at various points in the tree top.

The TeraHertz technology turns out to be extremely sensitive and very versatile. We're looking at sensors in the handheld devices, or that can be mounted on a drone. The technology has evolved to the point that you can use photonics in transmitters and receivers. You can connect sensors together using the small optical patch cord you’d find in a datacentre, so small, lower cost, convenient. So we are looking in to how to exploit this idea further. To make a very compact portable terahertz sensors for moisture monitoring, but also certain proteins. We see that finding application both in food production but also on the field. You can also imagine sensors mounted on the tractor or perhaps an autonomous robot.

By capturing a lot of this data and storing it helps in forward planning, learning to give just the right amount of water at the point the plant really needs it. One of the advantages of terahertz sensors is that it is a contactless technology, which means it can achieve non-invasive measurement. Unlike X-rays, Terahertz is non-ionising radiation so it is completely safe on both the food and human body.

At Tu/e we are working on new devices systems incorporating new materials for implementing these type of compact sensor modules. Because the sensors are very good at detecting impurities, they may be of interest to the food processing industry. Fats and proteins have very specific spectral fingerprints. So, if you're measuring the quality of milk powder to be given to infants, then the terahertz sensors are excellent at spotting any unwanted impurities. There is no need to take samples and analyse them in the lab. We believe it is a very efficient real-time monitoring and analysis technology. And because it can detect very small toxin levels, the sensor can also show whether organic potatoes have really been grown without chemical treatments.

At TU/e we are currently at a stage of proof of principle and further subsystem development. We are also working with LuzWavelabs in Madrid who are busy with prototyping and investigating how to implement the system onto a single photonics chip. And this where the power of integration plays a crucial role.

Thiago Raddo, Eindhoven University of Technology, Department of Electrical Engineering,Electro-Optical Communication. Thiago is a R & D engineer and will represent the department in the meeting on the 24th.