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Success Story – WaterBee

Smart irrigation technology set to reduce costs and save water

Due in large part to inefficient water irrigation systems, the agriculture industry wastes 60% of the water it uses each year, or 70% of the world’s freshwater. WaterBee has developed a smart irrigation system to reduce this wastage, thereby saving money and increasing both crop quality and yield.

‘The widespread take-up of this intelligent irrigation system could have a profound impact on water usage and its efficient management, which is a global environmental need with major implications for Europe,’ says Dr John O’Flaherty, the technical director of Ireland’s National Microelectronics Applications Centre, the SME coordinating the two-year project which ends in mid 2013.

The consortium gathers SMEs and RTD performers from eight countries and has received nearly EUR 1.14 million in grant funding as a Demonstration Action under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) 'Research for the benefit of SMEs' theme, out of a total project cost of approximately EUR 2 million. Dr O’Flaherty says that funding has been essential in allowing the consortium to work together, scale-up, validate and demonstrate this innovative system, as well as to bridge the gap from WaterBee’s previous research project prototype. ‘Without this aid, and the collaboration of the consortium partners, this would have taken much longer, if it would be possible at all, with the SMEs working alone.’

Tackling environmental and productivity challenges in agriculture

‘The WaterBee system goes well beyond the state-of-art, with its unique Soil-Moisture Model for optimal water use, continuously self-adapting to each user’s situation and business objectives,’ indicates Dr O’Flaherty. ‘Growers optimise their use of water by irrigating only where and when it is needed, as well as enhancing plant growth and quality.’

The system consists of a series of sensors planted across a field to measure soil water presence, environmental parameters and indicators of crop development for different areas of the field or fields that have diverse water requirements. These sensors then send readings through a wireless network and the Internet to an intelligent software application which selectively activates irrigation nodes to deliver the necessary amount of water only when it is required. Real-time data is presented to growers on easy-to-use smartphone and web apps. The WaterBee plug-and-play units are easy to install, and the user interface is very intuitive.

Dr O’Flaherty stresses the expected impact of the WaterBee project for its end users and the agricultural industry. Growers will benefit by getting greater control over the irrigation of their crops, thus earning more profit per hectare through the efficient use of water and other inputs. The system provides accurate and complete real-time information on crop and field conditions, assuring greater yields and higher quality crops. He states that this quality is ensured also by reducing the leaching of nutrients into the groundwater, and that WaterBee-monitored plants prove to be more disease-resistant since overwatered plants are more vulnerable to diseases.

Specifically, about 40% of irrigation water used today will be saved and irrigation events will be reduced by 50%. Time spent planning irrigations will be reduced by 50%. Plant health will be improved by 5%, while growers can expect to experience 10% higher profitability. 'The world is facing environmental challenges and water management has to evolve from today's model to a new smart one that includes water consumption reduction in accordance with scarce natural resources,’ emphasises Dr O’Flaherty.

The main beneficiaries of the WaterBee system will include: commercial growers of salad, fruit and vegetable crops; vineyards for monitoring the growing of grapes for consumption and wine production; golf course irrigation for optimum water usage and course performance; and landscape managers. The project consortium SMEs, who are set to commercialise all or parts of the WaterBee system, will also benefit from the WaterBee solution, which aims to meet the markets’ current needs.

Harnessing technological advances to revolutionise irrigation

Dr O’Flaherty explains the product’s added value and competitive advantage: 'Unlike existing systems, WaterBee is the first irrigation system to have a unique soil moisture model that optimises the use of water for individual crops in specific locations.’ He adds: ‘Regardless of such technological improvement, it’s affordable and the ownership cost is very low, with communications costs being no more than a few euro each month.’

‘WaterBee systems use the latest technologies and will be comparable in price with current systems, but with much greater functionality and value-added benefits for the beneficiaries,’ Dr O’Flaherty claims. ‘Existing water management and irrigation systems can be expensive, difficult to use and not very effective, while WaterBee provides accurate and complete real-time information on crop and field conditions.’

WaterBee has tremendous commercial potential due to a growing demand for food. Today, 40% of the world’s food is produced by irrigated agriculture. Of the 255 million hectares irrigated worldwide, 16 million are irrigated in 12 million holdings in Europe alone. The 255 million hectares are real market opportunities for implementing the WaterBee system, as exploitation rights cover all global markets. Europe is a key strategic market since commercialisation can often be easier and more accessible. Europe potentially accounts for EUR 500 million in smart irrigation systems. Overall, smart irrigation is estimated to be a EUR 1.7 billion global market by 2020.

The consortium partners plan to collaborate in the commercial exploitation of the WaterBee systems once the project ends, says Dr O’Flaherty. The project is disseminating the WaterBee service to potential customers and business partners through various media and key events, such as the highly influential EIMA 2012 (International Agricultural and Gardening Machinery Exhibition) in November.