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Rinaldi Awarded $1.7M ARPA-E Grant for Transformational Energy Technology

January 18, 2019

Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Matteo Rinaldi is passionate about using technology to make our lives safer, easier, and more efficient. For the next three years, he and his team will tackle one of the world’s most urgent issues—inadequate food production—under a $1.7 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency.

As the world’s population grows, available land is decreasing and crop yields are not at optimum levels, a trend that will likely lead to food shortages. Contributing to this situation, according to Rinaldi, is an “energy-constrained environment” and a lack of access to comprehensive data that would help farmers maximize their crop yields, specifically their ability to monitor in real-time when plants need water.

Based on the zero-power infrared sensor technology, originally developed for security purposes under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant, the Northeastern team proposes a network of zero-power sensors that will continuously monitor the infrared radiation emitted or reflected by a plant—surface temperature or spectral reflectivity of the leaves—to detect the need for water; once detected, the sensor, which is essentially in sleep mode and thus not consuming energy, turns on and sends a wireless signal that tells the farmer which plants need water.

“If we can develop these networks of sensors, which can be manufactured and deployed at low cost, it would enable farmers to install these sensors virtually everywhere with the unprecedented capability of acquiring comprehensive and real-time data of plant health and environmental conditions, with high granularity,” explains Rinaldi. “Translating them into actionable items would maximize the crop yield while conserving natural resources.”

Rinaldi sees the result of his team’s research in zero-power sensors as “a foundational technology” and an enabler for a wide variety of applications. “I hope there are going to be even more programs focusing on digital agriculture and ‘smart’ farms, and we can join forces with other disciplines to address this incredible challenge. We created a little revolution in how people think about wireless sensing and communication, and Northeastern will have a leadership role in this revolution because of it.”