Developing wireless soil sensors to improve farming

Ratnesh Kumar keeps his prototype soil sensors buried in a box under his desk. He hopes that one day farmers will be burying the devices under their crops. Kumar is leading an Iowa State University research team that’s developing transceivers and sensors designed to collect and send data about soil moisture within a field. Eventually the researchers are hoping the sensors will also collect data about soil temperature and nutrient content.

A major goal is to build small sensors (the prototypes are about 2 inches wide, 4 inches long and less than an inch thick) that can do their work entirely underground. 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, an Iowa State professor of electrical and computer engineering, 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.

The sensors could help researchers understand precisely how water moves through a field. They could help them develop better models to predict crop growth and yield. And they could help them understand the carbon and nitrogen cycles within soils.

And those sensors could help farmers manage their nutrient and water resources. That could maximize yields and profits. And it could minimize environmental impacts.

Folks who haven’t worked around modern agriculture – even the apocryphal family farm – have no idea how much science and sensors, wi-fi and web-enabled communications are involved.

Hopefully this prototype system will lead to fewer additives and healthier food for us all.

4 thoughts on “Developing wireless soil sensors to improve farming

  1. james357 says:

    This sounds more like expensive methods of commercialization that benefit the factory farm and destroy the small farmer, much like animal ID requirements.

    Such “innovations” start as voluntary and become mandatory, at the very least making it impossbile for less affluent farmers to stay compete with the factory farms owned by large corporations. The whole mindset of squeezing every last efficiency from every resource until it is bone dry and discarded is a corporate concept that is more times than not designed for the short term profit. Corporations mark life by 3 month periods. People make life by generations. Cultures mark life by centuries.

    I find it insane to do nothing to limit urban sprawl and implement smart growth policies, but then pretend to have schemes to increase much-needed production on the poorer quality land that’s left.

    I’ve been to enough Cooperative Extension presentations where they praise production increases and try to pretend that we are actually better off with less farmland, because what little land is left for framing is being used more efficiently.

    Yeah, this hits a raw nerve with me. In my opinion, it is nothing more than feel-good propaganda that can be used to centralize all of of food production to a select number of corporate assholes and justify the irresponsible destruction of prime US farmland for rows of junk houses that are about one tenth the quality of homes built 30 years ago. The residents of those junk houses don’t even have decent land for gardens, as they’re all crammed to together for maximum profit and the topsoil has been hauled off and sold…replaced with rock and debris. Yeah, the corporate mindset is a real boon to humanity all right.

  2. moss says:

    I agree, James, but –

    My grandparents were poultry farmers, over the years I’ve gotten to know a couple of local farmers well through our Farmers’ Market – orchardists and truck farmers.

    There’s no need to blame technology for the excesses of the marketplace and the economic system. Pretty much everything introduced for the good of giant scale agribusiness can be utilized to make life easier for family farmers.

    Dairymen are a good example. Everything about mechanization has benefited small organic dairies – like Strauss, for example – while they can all decide to get as organic and natural as they wish.

    Same is true of dirt farmers. Waking in the morning and knowing soil temp, moisture content, PH, etc. sitting in front of your computer – is still better than switching on FarmTV and hoping the extension service info that’s reporting from one farm in the county applies equally to your own.

    Don’t slip into being a Luddite is what I’m saying. At best – it’s off topic. 🙂

  3. moss says:

    Well, there’s a cogent argument.

    James, you don’t know any farmers who concern themselves with soil temp and moisture, ph? Folks don’t grow root crops or even alfalfa in your neck of the woods.

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