Trees have begun to “speak” using new sensors and generative AI. With ePlant‘s new TreeTag, trees are not just silent witnesses to environmental changes anymore; they have become environmental sensors.
Introduced in June, ePlant is currently accepting pre-orders for the ePlant TreeTag starter bundle at $149. The bundle includes a TreeTag and an easy-to-install wireless network that enables real-time monitoring of tree growth, irrigation, stress, temperature, and humidity. Additional TreeTags, which also connect to the wireless network, cost $79 each.
How TreeTag Works
The TreeTag uses artificial intelligence to present its information in a conversational manner sending data to the cloud. ChatGPT uses the information to explain a tree’s condition through a text conversation with a homeowner or a forestry researcher. The experience is like chatting with a friend, but it might be about how much water the tree needs to be healthy or a report on its growth and the carbon it has captured as it grows.
“You can see how the tree responds to water,” said Graham Hine, co-founder and CEO at ePlant. “If there’s rain or irrigation, the tree should respond by growing, absorbing that water, and using it for its metabolism. If its metabolism is compromised, you’ll see that too; a sick tree will respond differently than a healthy tree.”
TreeTags are solar-powered, and installation involves placing them onto the side of a tree using a screw. Tree responses are measured using a plunger on the device that rests against the tree bark to detect tiny changes in size that indicate various stresses, such as lack of water. It also includes accelerometers to identify trees at risk of falling and a humidity sensor to capture local weather data.
Revolutionizing Plant Data Collection
The device could revolutionize how plant data are collected, understood, and applied in agriculture and forestry. ePlant sensors can be placed on a few trees to collect sample data that describes the health and water conditions for an entire orchard or forest. Only a few sensors are needed in an orchard where trees are genetic clones planted and irrigated similarly. In diverse forest environments, sensors need to be placed on different species of trees to collect and understand the entire ecosystem’s health. The weather and other sensors allow scientists to more accurately analyze microclimates and species diversity, providing a barometer for overall forest health.
But converting this data into practical, actionable knowledge requires translation, and ChatGPT provided a timely answer.
“When the OpenAI stuff kind of came on to the public awareness, it answered the mail for us in presenting this information to a non-professional user, in a way that is natural language,” Hine said. “We realized we could also gamify this and make it fun by letting people have a conversation with a tree. So, you can actually talk to the tree using the AI and ask it how it’s doing.”
“Give your tree a voice,” ePlant encourages. This unique approach enhances the connection between humans and trees, bringing world-class horticultural knowledge to everyday caretakers. It is especially beneficial in the spring when trees come out of dormancy, capturing a significant part of the annual biological lifecycle in the data.
Providing Valuable Insights as Our Climate Changes
TreeTags have the potential to improve urban forestry. Up to 50% of urban trees planted don’t survive past year seven, a phenomenon known as the tree establishment problem. Natalie Love, Ph.D., a Frost Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, noted, “The ePlant sensors will improve our ability to detect and monitor tree health, especially in situations when trees are at risk, like during construction or road modification. The sensors can detect problems with trees long before symptoms appear to the observer.”
In the face of climate change, the device also opens new paths to understanding how forests evolve. Hine envisions these devices managing irrigation systems based on the data they collect, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing water use in farms and, potentially, forests.
There’s also the potential to measure carbon captured and stored in the body of a tree. Hine said, “How effectively a forest captures carbon can be measured directly and daily by this type of system. Some of the forward-leaning carbon credit organizations are looking at how to use instruments like ours. It’s inexpensive enough to deploy at scale.”
TreeTag Helps Trees Tell Us What They Need
ePlant claims TreeTags work for many years and will require little or no maintenance — you have to adjust the depth of the installation screw when the tree has grown more than a centimeter in diameter. Can we revolutionize how we care for trees, monitor environmental health, and mitigate the impacts of climate change? Trees are a critical member of our ecosystems. With ePlant TreeTag, they are ready to tell us what they need.