Uni works on buried sensors for farm management

ENGINEERS at Iowa State University and the University of Florida are working on a new system of “bury-and-forget” soil sensors and wireless data-collection networks that could help reduce the fertilizer that leaves farm fields.

The work at Iowa State University and the University of Florida aims to end harmful algae blooms that the fertiliser promotes.

The data from the sensors will be used to build better models of the interactions of fertiliser, soil and crops as a way to reduce fertiliser use.

American famers test for soil nutrients by taking soil samples and sending them off for laboratory analysis – a slow, expensive and imprecise process.

“If we had a better predictive model, we could have better remedies for farmers,” says project leader Jonathan Claussen, an Iowa State assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“A better model could tell them they can use less fertiliser.”

The project is supported by a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Claussen has expertise in developing low-cost, flexible sensors based on inkjet-printed and laser-treated graphene circuits. The sensors in this project will detect ammonium and nitrate ions in soil. Claussen hopes they’ll work for an entire growing season.

The engineers will build the sensors, connect them to a wireless network, test how deep the sensors can be buried while maintaining network connections.

They say the sensor networks and resulting models are expected to lead to precision agriculture where fertilisers are spread onto specific locations of the field in a metred fashion and only when needed.

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