WaterBee: Using Smartphones to Control Agricultural Irrigation

By July 30, 2013

A new smartphone app is designed to monitor the use of water for irrigation according to need, and thus help to reduce wastage.

The amount of water wasted worldwide due to inefficient agricultural irrigation is a serious problem. Now a mobile app has been designed to assist farmers’ decision-making on watering thirsty crops and ensure they use the right amount of water in the right place at the right time. The WaterBee project, which is financed by the European Union’s research and technological development programme, is now in demonstration phase in several countries including Estonia, Italy, Spain and the UK. Using sensors placed in the farmer’s field, the app gathers data remotely, which is then crunched by mathematical equations. The server then relays back to the app how much water should be released by the sprinkler systems. WaterBee has set a target of making 40% water savings while also enhancing crop quality. At the present time, approximately 70% of all water withdrawn from rivers and underground sources for human consumption is destined for agriculture. However, water irrigation systems currently waste enormous quantities of water due to inefficiencies.


Mathematical modelling to adjust irrigation volumes


The WaterBee model divides up the soil into layers and then uses calculations for the transfer of water between layers. It takes into account details of the soil, irrigation system, crop, roots and likely yields. The system then makes irrigation recommendations based upon soil-moisture and weather data delivered via wireless technology to a computer server. It checks how well the simulated field matches actual reality and makes adjustments to bring the virtual closer to farm reality. The main prerequisite for using this system is in fact good mobile network coverage. Dr Andrew Thompson, a plant scientist working at Cranfield University in the UK sees strong potential for WaterBee in Europe, South America and China in particular.


Obtaining more information on the soil

This is not the first such system to make use of internet irrigation management data and tools. However, WaterBee also integrates system control, which means that emerging technologies can be applied for the purpose of more accurate irrigation scheduling. Nevertheless, John Norman, a soil scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, points out that the greatest impediment to implementing these models is inadequate soil information. Professor Norman argues that in order to work properly such a system requires precise maps of soil properties incorporating information such as texture, structure and organic matter. He fears that the WaterBee approach does not adequately address inherent soil heterogeneity issues, complications which can seriously impact accuracy and reliability when making predictions.

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