Voluntary year of sustainability: Janek develops technologies for forest monitoring

Practice instead of theory, a "gap year" instead of direct entry into university or vocational training - that's what many young people want after graduating from high school. Janek Meister is one of them: Since September 2022, he has been doing a voluntary year in science, technology and sustainability (FJN) at TU Ilmenau. Together with scientists, the high school graduate is developing technologies in the Group for Quality Assurance and Industrial Image Processing to examine leaves and monitor the health of trees.

TU Ilmenau/Barbara Aichroth
At the FJN, Janek programs tools for multispectral camera systems or programs for data analysis. He is supported by Dr. Maik Rosenberger.

Janek Meister is now certain that he wants to study mechanical engineering. That was different after graduating from the Goetheschule in Ilmenau: "I wanted to take some more time to decide on my studies," says the 19-year-old. Through his school, he became aware of the possibility of a voluntary year in science, technology and sustainability (FJN) at the TU Ilmenau.

A year of reflection and trial and error

"We are currently the only university in Thuringia to offer this variation of the voluntary social year for young people," explains Dr. Katja Tonisch, engineer at the Technical Physics Group and Equal Opportunity Officer at TU Ilmenau, who initiated the program at the university and supports it together with colleagues such as Prof. Gunther Notni, Head of the Group for Quality Assurance and Industrial Image Processing (QBV): "Choosing a career can be difficult for young adults, especially after graduating from high school," says the university professor: "Many high school graduates find it difficult to imagine engineering, and in the worst case scenario end up in the wrong field of study and lose time on their way to a career. A year of self-discovery like the FJN helps young people gain new impressions and experiences and get their bearings." For him, the FJN is a win-win situation: "From the university teacher's point of view, the one year of 'reflection' and trying things out promotes fit for later careers and the seriousness of studying."

That's why Prof. Notni advertised the "Forest Monitor" assignment at his Group right away in the first FJN year at the TU Ilmenau. "In order for the forest to adapt to changing climatic conditions, forest conversion is necessary," says Prof. Notni. "This means other tree species must be planted and prepared for use. For this to be successful, the weather and growth parameters must be monitored, that is, a kind of early warning system must be established to ensure reforestation." To this end, his research team, which has included Janek Meister since September, is developing so-called multispectral cameras: "They can detect the many different wavelength ranges of light," says the high school graduate: "Much more information can be obtained from this data than from images taken with normal cameras, making them very suitable for health surveys."

Technologies for plant health

Based on this technology, Janek and his colleagues determine plant physiological parameters and parameters relating to vitality and plant health, for example wilt resulting from water stress or infestation with leaf-eating insects such as beetles and caterpillars, and detect feeding traces or fungal infestation.

"I spend most days at the computer, programming tools for the camera or programs for evaluating the data, for example," says Janek Meister, describing his job. He is mainly supervised by Dr. Maik Rosenberg, for whom the forest theme is a special affair of the heart. From time to time, therefore, there are also field assignments in which the two travel together to the experimental area near Cursdorf to set up measuring equipment or take care of the plants.

"It's exciting to find out how different the plants look in different wavelength ranges and what kind of information our eyes miss that can be effortlessly captured with cameras," Janek tells us. "Also, it's very interesting to develop programs to see these characteristics of the plant, where before you didn't see any difference with your own eyes."

He was particularly impressed by the robotic dog "Spot," which the department plans to use later in the research project to monitor trees in the forest on a mobile basis: "The technology behind it and how it moves smoothly in and around the office is very impressive. However, my favorite project of my own was the development of a microcontroller for frequency measurement, because I was very free in the design here and it's always very impressive to develop software in hardware."

In addition to work, Janek has also helped prepare the First Lego League competition and attends nationwide seminars several times a year as part of the volunteer year. "The FJN is great for anyone who is sure they want to study in the STEM field, but isn't quite sure yet what exactly it will be. During the year, you can get to know scientific work and test whether or not you really like a certain direction. However, if you've already found a course of study for yourself, you'd better go straight to university."

The next volunteer year at TU Ilmenau begins on September 1, 2023. Currently, those interested can still apply for two research projects on sustainability topics in electrical power engineering and media science. The application deadline is May 31.

More information and application at:


Dr.-Ing. Katja Tonisch

Equal Opportunities Officer