With robots doing everything from milking cows to crop dusting, farming has come a long way since they days of plodding along behind a horse and plow. Irrigation practices are also benefiting from advances in technology. The large-scale WaterBee smart irrigation and water management system is a case in point: it allows farmers use their smartphones to not only switch on the water where and when it’s needed, but also to get up to the minute information on field conditions.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the world uses 2,500 trillion liters of fresh water every year for growing crops. Unfortunately, it estimates that 60 percent of this is wasted due in part to inefficient irrigation systems. One way to counter this is by taking a page from precision farming, which relies on precisely attending to small areas or even individual plants on farms. In this case, WaterBee tries to cut the water bill by making a detailed study of fields and figuring out which bit needs how much water.
Coordinated from Limerick, Ireland, the WaterBee Project is a two-year, industry-driven demonstration project for an inexpensive, intelligent, flexible, easy-to-use, but accurate irrigation management system using wireless networking, environmental sensors and improvements in crop modelling. It’s aimed at farms, vineyards, golf clubs, public authorities and landscape managers and will be provided throughout Europe through business partners.
WaterBee is made up of a series of modular smart sensors distributed over an area that monitor soil moisture and other environmental factors that affect crop development and plant health. The output from these sensors is fed through a ZigBee wireless sensor network and from there to a GPRS gateway, which goes to a central web service. This service uses an intelligent software package to analyze the data, make models, and provide farmers and other users with advice based on their particular needs. The end result is fed back to an “easy-to-use” app on the user’s smartphone or tablet.
According to the developers, this reduces water use by allowing farmers to precisely schedule where, when and how much to irrigate as well as improving plant health and crop yields with lower operating costs. They also say that the modular components are easy to install and the system is also very flexible and is able to adjust to changing conditions. Estimated water savings over conventional irrigation are in the neighborhood of 40 percent.
WaterBee is already in use at 14 reference sites in Estonia, Malta, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.