Farmers Innovate

Farmers Innovate - Conservation through Innovation

By Calvin Perry, Dr. Wesley Porter, and Clint Thompson

University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

2019 Smart Irrigation Month


Recent advancements in core technologies such as advanced sensors, the Global Positioning System (GPS), Internet of Things (IoT), cellular telemetry and cloud-based computing and data storage have enabled tech companies to develop innovative solutions to pressing issues facing modern agriculture. 

Farmers and irrigators have started adopting many of these technological solutions and applying them in their operations, allowing them to innovate in ways that were previously ‘the stuff of science fiction.’ With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the agriculture industry needs to embrace innovative technologies to meet challenges, such as feeding this population. 

In addition, other issues farmers and irrigators must deal with include varying weather conditions (especially rainfall), competition for water resources, customer demand for sustainable crop production and shrinking economic margins. Yet, some have noted that when it comes to employing technology that improves control and efficiency, irrigation is arguably the farthest along in the ag industry.

Advanced Sensors

Advanced sensor developments have provided farmers and irrigators with cutting-edge tools for monitoring crop health. For example, farmers are now able to use soil moisture sensors in their fields to provide real-time feedback on the status of soil moisture available to their plants. Soil moisture can be monitored by eitherindividual sensors or individual sensors combined into “probes” that contain multiple sensors at multiple depths in the soil profile. 

Farmers are also able to use leaf wetness sensors, plant stem diameter sensors (dendrometers) and sap flow sensors. Data from these numerous advanced sensors yield critical information that can provide the farmer with the ability to make more informed irrigation management decisions.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to connecting any device, whether it be a washing machine, refrigerator, automobile, farm tractor or soil moisture sensor to the Internet (and/or to each other). The IoT is basically a giant network of interconnected “things”, including people. 

Today’s farmers and irrigators routinely interact with IoT as this technological innovation has enabled our farmers to remotely monitor and interact with (i.e. control) irrigation systems, receive vital weather data from remote weather stations, determine soil moisture status from remote sensor stations in fields, monitor location and movement of physical assets (trucks, tractors, sprayers, etc.), along with a myriad of other applications of IoT technologies that lead to what some refer to as “smart farming” — enhancing productivity and reducing waste.

Global Positioning System

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of 24 orbiting satellites that provides data for a global navigation system. This system provides highly accurate location, velocity, and time information for land, sea and air travel, and other purposes. 

With the advancement of Geographic Information System software (GIS) in combination with GPS, precision agriculture – managing ag operations in a site-specific manner has flourished. 

Traditionally, precision ag involved site-specific, often variable rate, management of crop inputs such as fertilizer and lime, as well as seeding rates and pesticide applications. Through efforts by scientists and engineers at the University of Georgia, a new technology was added to precision ag — variable rate irrigation (VRI) — to address the need for applying varying amounts of irrigation water across fields. 

The need for VRI was born out of the observation that our fields were not uniform and thus there was a need to address that variability in soils, topography and non-cropped areas. With VRI controls, a farmer or irrigator can now tailor irrigation amounts to every management zone across a particular field and even eliminate irrigation altogether in locations that are non-cropped.

GPS technology has enabled VRI as the process of varying irrigation application amounts requires hardware and electronics mounted on a center pivot irrigation system to respond to GIS map-driven commands at certain GPS locations around the irrigation system’s path. 

Cellular Telemetry

All of these technologies and tools require a connection to the internet. It is critical that there be access to reliable broadband internet for these practices, technologies, and tools to be fully utilized so that they will be adopted as intended. In all modern machinery, high level of data is created, stored and available for decision making. Without reliable telemetry, much of this data would never leave the field and have the opportunity to be implemented by the farmer.  

Three examples of irrigation technologies that require cellular telemetry are soil moisture monitoring, remote control and monitoring of irrigation systems and VRI.  

To enable a farmer to make real time decisions from his soil moisture sensors, they must be connected to a reliable telemetry network that ensures the data is being updated on a regular basis. In some cases, specifically in vegetable irrigation, irrigation decisions may be required hourly or even faster. On large farms it is not possible to visit every site as often as irrigation needs are required.  

The solution to this is remote soil moisture monitoring to determine when irrigation should be turned on and shut off. Similarly, in row crop irrigation management, better decisions can be made when data is available at least daily for the farmer such as when the crop requires water.

As mentioned with vegetable irrigation management, the ability to control irrigation systems remotely greatly increases on-farm efficiency and productivity. In some cases, farmers are managing more than 100 center pivot systems. It is difficult to regularly check, start and stop them.  

If reliable cellular telemetry is available, the farmer has the option to start and stop the pivot when irrigation is required or if rainfall is received.  Producers can also stop the system if any problems are encountered without having to visit the site. 

Current implementations of VRI make use of cellular telemetry to enable farmers and irrigators to create water application prescription maps and transmit those maps to remote center pivot systems. This remote map uploading also increases efficiency and productivity, as the person creating VRI maps does not need to travel to each center pivot system to load maps into the controller memory.

Cloud-based Computing and Data Storage

The advent of cloud-based computing and data storage has allowed a rapid expansion into faster and easier-to-use tools and technologies.  

Some of these tools that rely on that technology are Smartphone Apps. The ability to have an app on a phone and accessible any time and place increases the ability to addresses issues immediately. 

There are many opportunities to use this technology in irrigation management. One of the most obvious is irrigation scheduling. This can be accomplished by using soil moisture sensors in combination with either an application which compiles and displays the data or with software which uses the data to make a real-time irrigation decision from the soil moisture sensor data.   

These applications — either stand alone or in combination with sensors — provide farmers with a toolset that can greatly increase their irrigation water use efficiency (IWUE). This helps them be more efficient with the amount and timing of their irrigation events, also known as “more crop per drop.”  

These tools have shown that they work much better than utilizing visible stress or historically developed “checkbook” methods. Depending on what the farmer wants to implement on the farm, they can select specific tools at little to no additional cost.  

One irrigation scheduling tool that was developed in the Georgia by the USDA is Irrigator Pro. Irrigator Pro can be used either as a web-based model or as a smartphone application, with or without soil moisture sensors.  

Once an account is created, Irrigator Pro can be managed from either a Smartphone or computer with all data available on both platforms due to the model being located on a cloud-based server. 

Irrigator Pro has the option to use a soil water balance model, utilize soil temperature or use soil water tension data to make irrigation scheduling decisions.  Some of the commercially available soil moisture sensor systems can be directly accessed via Irrigator Pro. This aids the farmer by allowing Irrigator Pro to make the decisions on when to irrigate.  The availability of software and smart phone applications can greatly increase IWUE for the farmer if used properly. 

Another irrigation scheduling tool that uses cloud computing and data storage is the SmartIrrigation Apps suite. 

UGA has worked with the University of Florida to develop apps for irrigation scheduling in cotton and soybeans (with corn app under development). These SmartIrrigation Apps use an ET-based model to estimate when irrigation is necessary and provides the user with an estimate of how much water should be applied. 

It does not require soil moisture sensors, sends the user notifications when action is needed and is available at no cost. The only disadvantage is that the apps require accurate daily precipitation data to perform optimally. If the farmer is near one of Georgia’s statewide weather network stations, he/she can link to the weather station from within the app. 

These apps are available for both iOS and Android smartphones.

What’s Next?

It is exciting to see farmers adopting various aspects of these technologies — from soil moisture sensors to variable rate irrigation to remote irrigation control to Smartphone apps for scheduling. By adopting these innovative tools, farmers and irrigators are increasing their IWEU and getting “more crop per drop.” 

But there are so many more developments on the horizon related to advanced irrigation management. UGA is working hard to utilize several of these technologies - soil moisture sensors, VRI, advanced irrigation scheduling, cellular telemetry, and cloud-based computing and data storage - as they are linked to provide what UGA scientists are calling Dynamic Variable Rate Irrigation (dVRI). This new dVRI technology enables a farmer or irrigator to tailor irrigation application in real-time to changing conditions in a field.

Going forward, we will likely see in-field robotics doing repetitive, menial tasks, autonomous ag vehicles going about their work, ubiquitous sensors spread over and within fields, and constant data collection and analytics. All would lead to by-the-plant crop management.