Smart city technologies can transform more than just the urban environment. In fact sensors and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications are tipped to play a major role in agriculture. With sensors placed across fields, farmers can have a real-time view of conditions across their estate allowing them to optimize crop yields.
Water irrigation is a key part of farming and being able to measure moisture is invaluable, in particular for high-value crops such as wine. However today’s water sensors are typically large, expensive and rely on being read manually.
cheap fingertip-sized sensors
Researchers at Cornell University hope to change all that with a cheap water sensor in a silicon chip that is as small as a fingertip. The embedded microfluidic water-sensor is hundreds of times more sensitive than current devices, claim the researchers. Currently undergoing soil tests, the researchers also plan to test the chip embedded directly in the stem of plants.
By measuring water content in the grapevine stem, vintners can deliver precise irrigation to create just the right grape composition for premium wine. Sensors can be left in place for years to give vintners valuable data for ongoing improvements to irrigation and planting. Water sensors can also be combined with other sensors such as temperature to give a richer view.
“One of our goals is to try and develop something that is not only a great improvement, but also much cheaper for growers and others to use,” said Alan Lakso, professor of horticulture at Cornell, who has been working on water sensing for 20 years. With the cost of the mass-produced chips expected to be only around $5, the sensors should be able to deliver a return on investment for many different crops.
The Cornell researchers said that the technology has already attracted the interest of Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery and Welch’s juice company. The sensors are also being adapted to work in other applications. One of the most promising is embedding them in concrete to detect changes in moisture, which can predict potential failures in highway structures or buildings.
With vineyards delivering a high-value product, it’s no surprise that many vintners are turning to technology to improve both quality and yields. In Spain, a project called SITELVINA is using a range of technologies in two vineyards in the Toro region. The ambitious project uses sensors, monitoring technology, intelligent devices and back-end systems to support wine production from grape to bottle.
And in the US, a ice-wine maker uses M2M technology to help manage the delicate production of this unusual wine. Shelburne Vineyard based in northern Vermont uses wireless sensors to monitor environmental conditions across its estate. Because the grapes for ice-wine are left on the vines till very late in the season, the grapes need to be harvested at just the right temperature (-8 degrees Celsius). In addition the vines themselves need to be protected from very low temperature, because future fruit production could be damaged if it gets too low. The sensors allows the vintner to accurately track and analyze temperature so they can take the appropriate action.