Device sends world-first signal into orbit using the power of plants

15 Jan 2020

Image: © FotoIdee/

A new device that can send data to space using power harvested from plants has achieved a world-first transmission.

The internet of things (IoT) is going into orbit with a little help from the natural world. Two Dutch companies working under an ESA programme – Plant-e and Lacuna Space – have built a device that uses electricity generated by plants to send a signal into orbit in what is being described as a world first.

The device transmits data on air humidity, soil moisture and temperature, enabling field-by-field reporting from agricultural land and rice fields. While plants produce organic matter through photosynthesis, only part of the matter is used for plant growth. The rest is excreted into the soil through the plant’s roots.

The bacteria around the roots of the plant break down the organic matter and, conveniently for this technology, release electrons as a waste product.

“This opens up a new era in sustainable satellite communications,” said Rob Spurrett, chief executive and co-founder of Lacuna Space. “There are many regions in the world that are difficult to reach, which makes regular maintenance expensive and the use of solar power impossible.”

Interplanetary IoT

Frank Zeppenfeldt, who works on future satellite communication systems at ESA, added: “We are very enthusiastic about this demonstration that combines biotechnology and space technology.

“A number of new opportunities for satellite-based IoT will be enabled by this. It will help to collect small data points in agricultural, logistic, maritime and transportation applications – where terrestrial connectivity is not always available.”

To roll out IoT on a grand scale, similar, battery-free designs have become a focus for many research groups. In some cases, teams are even developing sensors that could not just transmit a signal into space, but send one from alien planets.

Last year, a team of MIT researchers unveiled a battery-free underwater sensor that can transmit data for extremely long periods of time. They said that rolling out a network of these sensors could be used to monitor sea temperatures, study climate change or even be used for underwater IoT networks millions of kilometres away.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic