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.