When it comes to water efficiency, innovation is certainly key and the good news in this regard is that we have a huge amount of technology at our disposal these days to help us achieve our ambitions when it comes to saving the planet and safeguarding precious resources for future generations.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things is fast becoming commonplace across all industries and sectors, helping businesses of all shapes and sizes meet all sorts of goals, including their sustainability ambitions.
Where agriculture and farming is concerned, internet-enabled smart sensors could be just what the industry needs to improve water efficiency, helping growers work out just how much water they need to use across different parts of their land.
Interest in smart sensors to improve agricultural practises certainly seems to be global – so here’s what’s going on around the world where AI and water conservation is concerned.
New Zealand agritech startup Croptide, for example, has developed some smart sensors that are able to provide water measurement data in real time to fruit and wine grape growers.
The sensors themselves are attached to the plants, sending water and nutrient readings from the stem tissues straight to the growers’ smartphones – which the company believes can drive water efficiency improvements of between 30 and 50 per cent.
Co-founder Hamish Penny launched the business in February 2021 after growing increasingly concerned about what impacts changing climate patterns will have on agriculture.
He was quoted by Startup Daily as saying: “Many regions around the world are facing dire water scarcity and growers are expressing the need for a quick and reliable method of gathering the critical data needed around water use and plant health.
“If every grower knows the precise amount of water needed for every plant, then they can make significant water efficiency gains to tackle global water scarcity and feed the planet.”
Towards the end of 2021, Croptide succeeded in raising $1 million in pre-seed funding and leading wine companies are already trialling the technology, including Indevin, Cloudy Bay New Zealand, Pernod Ricard Winemakers and T&G Global.
A new UCLA-led study has just revealed that the megadrought affecting years southwestern North America for the last 22 is, in fact, the region’s driest period since at least the year 800 – and with these dry conditions likely to continue, it will take multiple wet years in order to mitigate the effects.
This, of course, spells potential disaster for agriculture in the region – but one agritech company in California has plans in place to help growers continue operating productively, while conserving water.
CropX has developed sensors and software that can help farmers work out precisely how much water they need to use in different parts of the field, a strategy that can increase yields and save water, as well as other resources, by making sure that no part of the site receives too much or too little water.
This is known as precision agriculture and, while the concept isn’t a new one, CropX is working to refine the processes, making it cheaper and easier for growers to adopt the techniques, according to Wired.
The sensors can be positioned directly in the soil, with data then transmitted to the cloud where the company’s servers make sense of the numbers on soil structure, moisture and topography before sending a report out to an app that contains recommendations for how much water to use on each part of the field. This, CropX believes, is able to help farmers use up to 25 per cent less water.
Over in New South Wales, meanwhile, research has been carried out in rice and cotton fields to see how sensors and satellites could help change the game for broadacre irrigators.
Carried out by John Hornbuckle, Deakin University associate professor, the study involved using technology that allowed irrigators to control automated watering systems remotely, ABC News reports.
Dr Hornbuckle explained that rice growers particularly would benefit from this automated system, observing that water management challenges are slightly different for this kind of crop, as pond watering is required periodically. Start siphons would no longer have to be started manually for bankless channel layouts for rice, for example.
Growers could also save water by irrigating at optimal times, while crops would not become waterlogged since the sensors are able to shut the water supply off automatically.
“The two major benefits of this automation technology is the water savings, as you can make the right decisions at the right time when to irrigate, and also the better lifestyle it allows for,” Dr Hornbuckle said.
New Zealand (again)
It’s not just land management that could be supported by the use of AI and smart sensors… the technology could also be employed to help boost the yields delivered by greenhouses, as well.
New Zealand-based Autogrow uses wireless smart sensors to provide operators with microclimate and environmental data to improve yield, quality and decision-making. Data gathered includes humidity, temperature, CO2, barometric pressure and so on, which growers are able to view on a heatmap and review differences across their grow areas.
CEO Darryn Keiller said: “We’ve advocated for a long time in the industry that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and the decisions you make are only as good as the sensor technology gathering the data.”
In 2020, the Water Efficient Technology (WET) Centre, based at research facility NIAB EMR in Kent, saw a record year for strawberry fields, thanks to innovative growing techniques and smart irrigation systems.
Using smart irrigation technology, a team of researchers were able to determine the minimum amounts of water required to achieve the desired level of strawberry plant quality and yield.
The minimising of waste is expected to become more important as time goes on, in line with the increasing scarcity of water, as well as the chances that intensive horticultural growing systems are likely to be based increasingly in more urban locations, where strict water waste prevention legislation and protocols are expected to become the norm.