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Wireless soil sensors to help farmers

A research team at Iowa State University (ISU) is developing wireless soil sensors to improve farming while minimizing environmental impacts. ISU says that 'the prototype sensors are designed to collect and send data about soil moisture -- and eventually soil temperature and nutrient content -- while working completely underground.' According to the project leader, 'The goal is to hopefully have these sensors in production agriculture. But first we need to develop them and answer more questions about how cost-effective they could be.' These wireless soil networks could become available by the end of 2009. But read more...
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Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

A research team at Iowa State University (ISU) is developing wireless soil sensors to improve farming while minimizing environmental impacts. ISU says that 'the prototype sensors are designed to collect and send data about soil moisture -- and eventually soil temperature and nutrient content -- while working completely underground.' According to the project leader, 'The goal is to hopefully have these sensors in production agriculture. But first we need to develop them and answer more questions about how cost-effective they could be.' These wireless soil networks could become available by the end of 2009. But read more...

A wireless soil sensor prototype

You can see above a prototype of a wireless soil sensor which will be tested in an Iowa State research field later this fall. (Credit: ISU photographer Bob Elbert) Here is a link to a slightly larger version of this photo.

This research project has been led at ISU by Ratnesh Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He worked with Stuart Birrell, an associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, Ahmed Kamal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, Robert Weber, another professor of electrical and computer engineering and several graduate students.

A key challenge for the research team was to build very small sensors in order which could do their work underground. "The prototypes are about 2 inches wide, 4 inches long and less than an inch thick. The sensors won't need wires or above-ground antennas, so farmers could work right over the top of them. The sensors would also be able to report their locations. That would make it easy to find sensors if a plow were to move them or when batteries need to be replaced. Kumar said the sensors are designed to be buried about a foot deep in a grid pattern 80 to 160 feet apart. The sensors would relay data along the grid to a central computer that would record information for researchers or farmers."

Here are some additional quotes from Stuart Birrell. "A challenge of precision agriculture is collecting data at a high enough resolution that you can make good decisions. These sensors would provide very high resolution data for producers and researchers. They would give us another data layer to explain differences in yield and help us make management decisions."

The research team has received a $239,999 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for this project. And yes, you read correctly: $239,999, not $240,000. Is it possible that NSF starts to use the same gimmicks as retail stores trying to sell something for $9,99 thinking it looks cheaper than $10? Anyway, here are some details about the Development of Soil Sensors and Their Underground Wireless Network for Fertilization Management to Minimize Environmental Impact, which started on May 1, 2006 and should be completed by April 30, 2009.

Here is an introduction to this project. "The objective of this research is to develop an underground wireless network of soil sensors to monitor soil properties like moisture content and temperature, which will be used to collect high-resolution spatio-temporally varying data needed for accurate climatic/hydrologic-flow/crop-growth modeling and variable-rate control of irrigation/fertilization. The approach is to (1) develop self-calibrating moisture and temperature soil sensors to be deployed in a 50-acre, central Iowa farm over a rectangular-acre grid (approximately, 50m by 50m) at the depth of 30cm where the moisture level is more stable and available for root uptake; (2) endow each sensor with the capability of underground wireless communication of at least 50m range, and networking capabilities for self-localization, self-organization, and power-conserving medium access/routing/data-transportation; and (3) employ the data gathered by the sensor network to accurately calibrate the parameters of the crop-growth (CERES Maize), the carbon-nutrient cycling, and the hydrologic-flow models for obtaining information on carbon sequestration, nitrogen uptake/leaching, and crop development with the goal of developing agriculture management and environmental protection practices."

Sources: Iowa State University News Service, October 10, 2008; and various websites

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