Science Foundation Grant Aids UNL Research On Irrigation Sensor

Small computer node in the soil will relay moisture information to a center pivot.

Published on: May 1, 2013

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln computer engineer believes he has come up with a new irrigation sensing tool that can conserve water, improve yields and cut costs.

Mehmet Can Vuran, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at UNL, has developed a wireless underground sensor network to give irrigators real-time information about soil moisture. He's had the help of doctoral student Xin Dong, as well as a five-year, $418,760 grant from the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Program to further develop the technology.

Now they have a new grant of $50,000 from NSF to help them take the idea to market.  Known as the I-Corps, the NSF program's goal is to guide toward commercialization promising scientific discoveries that offer great benefits to society. NSF specifically sought out discoveries that offer near-term benefits to society or the economy.

This is the computer node that UNL researchers say can transmit soil moisture date to a center pivot.
This is the computer node that UNL researchers say can transmit soil moisture date to a center pivot.

Vuran's team also is working with NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit corporation responsible for the university's technology development, to commercialize this technology.

His wireless technology can transmit soil moisture information to a center pivot or even a base station up to 25 feet away. Such information will determine when and how much to water crops.

Existing technology, meanwhile, is limited to just a few feet of transmission, lacks the ability to get the data in real time, and is still largely focused on observing atmospheric conditions, he adds.

The key component in Vuran's work is a 2-inch-long box, the size of a 9-volt battery, with an antenna. The "computer node," as Vuran calls it, is placed underground and wired to a nearby Watermark soil sensor. It collects data from the soil sensor either on an hourly or daily basis, depending on how it is programmed.

He envisions it working in this way: As the pivot approaches the sensor and computer node, the pivot captures the data and automatically changes the water application. The same information also could be relayed to a home computer or cell phone.

The computer node has a built-in memory and a radio to communicate with the pivot.

Vuran hopes to increase the communication range of the buried computer nodes and to create improved network protocols and communication devices smart enough to adjust to the changing conditions of soil and water.

"If you look at most of the technology for irrigation management, we're still looking at the sky," Vuran says. "But with this technology, we're basically trying to get into the soil and let the soil tell us what to do."