Thirsty plants phone home
Wireless advances have made running center pivots a remote-control chore. Now, technology that monitors crop conditions will make scouting fields a windshield task entirely. SmartCrop, a technology developed by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), is now being sold commercially.
The original concept of remote-crop monitoring was the brainchild of James Mahan with the ARS center in Lubbock, Texas. Mahan realized that each plant species had a fairly narrow range of internal temperatures it preferred for best growth.
When leaf temperatures go above the upper limit of that range for too long, the plant needs water as much for cooling down as for quenching its thirst. In Texas, for example, Mahan found that cotton began to suffer from drought if cotton plant leaves stayed above 82°F. for more than 6½ hours.
To detect crop temperatures, Mahan placed infrared sensors in fields to sense leaf temperatures. Those sensors worked with wireless transmitters to relay temperatures to a base station with a cellular transmitter. Researchers went on to calculate the correct time-temperature thresholds for particular crops.
Mahan's breakthrough research has been adopted by Smartfield Inc., which has developed an entire array of sensors and related devices that allow farmers to take orders from the crops for irrigation.
The heart of Smartfield's system is SmartCrop, which employs infrared thermometers that are set in strategic locations in the field. These sensors measure plant canopy temperatures once every minute, reporting average readings every 15 minutes to a base station in the field. A single base station can support up to 60 sensors situated in multiple, adjacent fields. The base station, in turn, accumulates readings, then calls in temperature data to the company's CropInsight Web server using cell service.
Soil probes as well
Smartfield took Mahan's remote-sensing approach a step further with SmartProfile, which employs soil sensors to determine actual moisture conditions. An operator can opt to upgrade the base station with SmartWeather. This addition turns the base station into a fully functional remote wether station.
Another upgrade, SmartPivot, reports pivot location using GPS while also monitoring the sprinkler's water pressure. All these devices work with the same base station. Data is interpreted by CropInsight, which prepares reports that are accessed by subscribing farmers. This analysis can be tailor-fit to particular needs such as providing alerts for farmers predicting when cooling irrigation is needed or when soil moisture levels are reaching deficit levels.
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