1660601280145 Jimmontague2

What can chemical-based networks teach us about industrial networks?

Dec. 22, 2020
Plants, fungi, slime and other chemical-based networks may have much to teach electronic, industrial networks and their human users

Just like the few other homeowners who still mow their own lawns, I'm certain the dandelions are conspiring against me. I used to think it was just a (sub)urban legend that they ducked down to avoid lawnmower blades. However, I learned that when one dandelion is cut, the sap released into the air trigger its surviving neighbors to hug closer to the ground to avoid similar trauma.

I should no doubt research this particular accusation further, but ever since I formed my sporting interest in dandelion strategy and tactics, I've organically run across so much supporting information that added inquiries weren't needed. Of course, because Control and I continue to cover industrial networking, I keep noticing many of the methods used to site assess, design, setup and maintain Ethernet, wireless, Internet, cloud-computing and other electronic networks are eerily similar to the biological connections and systems running in literal fields and forests.

As usual, I'm no expert, but that many parallels means one side probably has lots to teach the other. It wouldn't be the first time people and industry learned from biology and nature, but it still requires a willingness to look and see. Jet engines were flying for decades before someone added feather-shaped, scalloped edging around their exhausts to reduce noise.

Anyway, I first confirmed my suspicions about weed communications thanks to a PBS Nature documentary, "What plants talk about," which detailed their quests for light and nutrients. It reported how plants and trees emit compounds and odors when they're stressed or attacked, but it also described how their root systems interact with and respond to other plants, insects, animals, fungi and microorganisms in their neighborhood—and initiate chemical-based identification, defense or attacks. Sounds like the basic sense-decide-act model for process control to me, complete with a cybersecurity component.

Plus, rather than simply competing (or conforming to transplanted human ideas), many tree-root filaments and mycorrhizal fungi in the ground actively complement each other, and form long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, vast systems and nurturing communities that allow each participant to secure the nourishment they need more successfully. In the "What plants talk about" documentary, Dr. Suzanne Simard, forest ecology professor at the University of British Columbia, reports that roots provide fungi with carbon-based sugars that can't make themselves, fungi give back nutrients that trees can't produce. She goes into more detail in her TED Talk, "How trees talk to each other." 

What's more remarkable is all this tree/fungi coordination occurs without brains or central nervous systems. Simple chemical sensors, triggers and genetic predispositions drive plants, fungi and other organisms to survive. Slime molds are reported to be even more basic than fungi, but just check out their networking in this clip from the PBS Nova documentary "The secret mind of slime." It's not likely conscious, but what is? And who cares, as long as your belly is full, whatever form that belly takes?

I used to be skeptical that indirect networking or communication by inference weren't truly networking and communication. However, even though radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on tubs of ice cream don't measure and relay temperatures, using the tags to verify location and time still lets users correctly assume they've remained frozen.

Likewise, there isn't a garden gnome texting the dandelions when I start the lawnmower, but they still get the message. Whatever works.

In many Control articles, I'm repeatedly reminded of the need to make industrial networks simpler and easier to program as they progressed from point-to-point hardwiring to fieldbuses, Ethernet, wireless and the Internet. I'd bet the longer-evolved, chemical-based networks of plants and microorganisms can offer useful clues to their electronic counterparts.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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