It’s the free advice every decent florist delivers when you buy their potted plants: how much water they need, and how often. And it’s not just the occasional flower buyer who needs guidance on watering as even experienced farmers can misjudge how much to sprinkle on their crops, leaving them either parched or drenched. But now research is offering an intelligent irrigation system to monitor how much water is being held in the soil, automatically spraying when needed. Available as a smartphone app, it’s a breakthrough that could save harvests, as well as trillions of litres of water wasted in world farming every year.
Global agriculture wastes 60%, or 1,500 trillion litres, of the 2,500 trillion litres of water it uses each year, according to the WWF. Even in Europe, farmers still suffer during droughts, and the Mediterranean region, with its limited, fragile and unevenly distributed water resources is especially vulnerable: the 2003 heat wave cost about €11 billion in lost crops. The waste is mainly down to inefficient irrigation systems. But better managed, it could mean more water resources for other basics like drinking, hygiene and cooking.
The new research harnesses technological advances in wireless networking, environmental sensors and soil water movement models. Aided by a grant of €1.14 million from the European Commission, the WaterBee Demonstration Action project – which gathered ten European partners over two years - brings the innovations together to help farmers irrigate where and when they need.
“We wanted to build something that is easy for farmers to use while being flexible and robust enough to survive in farm environments,” says John O’Flaherty, the technical director of Ireland’s Limerick-based National Microelectronics Applications Centre (MAC), which is spearheading WaterBee. “We tried to learn what the growers really needed. They are not interested in the technical specifications. They just want a simple service that helps them use less water, which is why we developed a smartphone app.”
Thanks to sensors planted across the field, the WaterBee system can continuously monitor water movement in the root zone. It uses a ZigBee-standard, low cost, low power consumption wireless sensor network, sending the data to an intelligent web service software application for analysis. Once the numbers are crunched - taking due account for weather and other local parameters - it automatically activates the selected irrigation nodes in the areas required.
Prototypes of the system have already been tested in the UK, Malta, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Estonia, using crops like lettuce, courgettes, and berries. In the British trials, on Maris Piper potatoes, WaterBee used 56% less water than the local irrigation system in use.
The complete kit is expected to cost around €3,500, and can be adapted for almost all terrains. “It’s cheap, and easy to deploy and run, so we can imagine it being used by farmers, growers, hotels, golf clubs, and even domestic homeowners,” says O’Flaherty. “At the same time, this system could have a wider impact in terms of water and cost savings, and environmental protection. As it’s user-friendly and doesn’t cost the earth, this could really change the way we farm.”