Gybe start-up stewards water quality
After nearly two decades of work in the semiconductor industry, Ivan Lalovic took off on a two-year sabbatical to sail a small boat on the Atlantic Ocean with his wife and two kids. He spent that time reflecting on his career and realized he wanted to use his skills in engineering to improve the environments he cares about.
“After leaving the industry, I consulted on remote sensing technology and uncovered the opportunity to apply satellite imagery measurement techniques to watersheds, waterways, lakes, and other bodies of water,” Lalovic says.
This journey of discovery led him to found Gybe, a start-up that monitors water quality using satellite imagery to help manage, conserve, and restore critical watersheds.
How It Works
Gybe has developed a software as a service (SaaS) platform and hardware that continuously collect data in water sources by using low-cost optical sensors. Output data is based on the color measurement of water, a difficult hurdle to overcome because of water’s absorption of light. Lalovic says the result is similar to satellite imagery that identifies and differentiates between soil and plants, but the Gybe technology goes beyond that to measure the concentration and mix of different microscopic compounds.
The data collected allows Gybe to measure complexity of sediments in water, concentrations of chlorophyll, presence of toxic algae, and nutrients. Lalovic says that while nitrates don’t have an optical signature, his team has been able to relate pigments in the water of the Lower Mississippi to its nitrate levels. With this information, they can develop models and provide nitrate maps.
“The challenges with water are a bit more pronounced given that water doesn’t stay where you put it,” Lalovic says. “It flows, evaporates, is dynamic, it impacts people downstream of you, and certain practices you may put in place upstream to improve water quality may not work as well in other regions.”
The value to Gybe’s customers is the scalability of monitoring water quality practices already in progress and the ability to plan projects targeted for the most impact in watersheds.
Founded in 2019, the company’s customers and collaborators include major public- and private-sector organizations, such as the U.S. Navy, The Nature Conservancy, and Anheuser-Busch.
Gybe’s technology suits beverage companies, which have significant water usage, and drinking-water utilities that have a regulatory burden to monitor surface water.
At Anheuser-Busch, Gybe’s technology is used to quantify sediment inputs and monitor the impacts of land-use changes and efficacy of erosion control measures in eastern Idaho along the Snake River. This is where barley is grown by farmers who contract with the company and whose conservation and crop management impacts their productivity and the environment.
“This information could benefit not only our company and our growers but also a range of other agricultural, economic, and ecological stakeholders along the basin,” Edward Ferguson, director of sustainability at Anheuser-Busch, says.
Ferguson says watershed impact assessments typically are slow, manual, and expensive to do accurately. They need monitoring in remote or difficult-to-access regions of watersheds with self-sufficient, noninvasive water monitoring equipment and satellite imagery.
“Idaho is a sparsely populated state with low average rainfall during the growing season,” Ferguson says. “It is imperative to provide real-time water quality insights on previously unmonitored sections of watersheds because they provide water to our growers and other ag communities, which rely heavily on irrigation during the dry growing season. This work with Gybe will empower the future of water resiliency in Idaho by improving access to watershed data.”
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is currently partnering with Gybe on a second pilot project to monitor the effects of conservation in the Mississippi River watershed and determine whether progress is being made on nutrient reduction.
Bryan Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for TNC, says, “We are very interested in work that helps meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal for nutrient reduction in the Mississippi River. We must know how to target work on the ground in the best places that can secure a return on investment.”
Piazza says that even in the muddy waters of the Lower Mississippi River, Gybe’s remote sensing and data collection provided the information they were looking for and was confirmed by existing optical nitrate sensors from the U.S. Geological Survey.
With this technology, TNC can accurately measure results, which leads to better land management upstream.
“In our Mississippi Basin whole systems program, we’re interested in projects that reduce nitrogen and phosphorous loading and in wetland restoration that removes those nutrients,” Piazza says. “We need to scale up our projects and because Gybe’s technology makes the invisible visible, we can.”
Water-Use Efficiency on the Farm
Proper water management is one of the goals Scott Azbell, water management and strategy manager at Trimble Agriculture, prioritizes when working with farmers. “As for operational importance, every farm of any size should make water-use efficiency one of the first strategies evaluated because it trickles down to affect everything else, regardless of the investment or use of technology,” says Azbell.
It starts with how water is directed and used, how surface and subsurface movement behaves, how chemicals are applied, all the way through how water is discharged into a watershed and eventually to the ocean, he adds. Collecting and analyzing accurate data are key in this process.
“With data and a software analysis system, we can understand the potential problems and design an effective solution for the farm that addresses surface, subsurface, and discharge quality,” Azbell says.
Those solutions may include saturated buffers, bioreactors, waterways, and constructed wetlands, depending on the typography and soil type.
Correction Services for Higher Accuracy
Michael Bruno, Agriculture Market Manager for Correction Services at Trimble, says a fundamental technology in precision agriculture solutions is GNSS.
GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite System, refers to a constellation of satellites that provide signals from space and transmit positioning and timing data to receivers.
“There are two technologies that help achieve the highest levels of accuracy,” Bruno says. “Most people are familiar with RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) or VRS services that rely upon extra equipment in the field. The other type of technology is broadly called satellite-based services, and Trimble’s offering in this space is CenterPoint RTX.”
Why are correction services key for the best accuracy? Bruno says it’s to create more productive workflows.
The number one reason farmers choose high-accuracy corrections is to increase their productivity, whether that means making better use of their time, reducing input costs or raising yields. At the same time, Trimble understands that RTX is a critical component to enabling autonomous workflows for the farmer.
“Higher accuracy leads to increased productivity,” he says. “Whether a farmer is doing control traffic farming, inter-row sowing, or strip tilling, these high-end farming workflows benefit from correction services.”
At Trimble, the OmniStar solution brought the satellite services to market. Now, Trimble CenterPoint RTX provides higher performance and doesn't require any additional hardware.
“Everything needed to receive and process the signals is built into the receiver, so it’s really easy to achieve this high accuracy, one-inch performance in the field without needing a domain of knowledge or extra hardware services to subscribe to,” Bruno explains. “With our latest update to CenterPoint RTX, farmers can now get the best of both worlds in high accuracy correction services with RTK level accuracy and less than five-minute convergence time, getting them in the field and highly accurate quicker and easier than ever before.”
Conservation Drainage In Priority Watersheds
The Central Iowa Water Quality Infrastructure Project, launched in June, is a collaborative effort between the public and private sector to scale up conservation drainage practices on farms.
The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy identifies conservation drainage as one of the most cost-effective and efficient nitrate-reducing practices that will improve water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. Since June, the project partners have installed 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors across Polk and Dallas counties in central Iowa, and more than 100 sites are selected for similar improvements in 2022.
The project’s funding partners developed a financial model with an easement payment that incentivizes landowners in the watershed to participate. Kurt Lehman is one farmer in the program who says it’s a win-win situation. “I’ve always been conservation-minded,” Lehman says. “By putting these systems in, I’m doing my part to take nutrients out of the water and making sure it pays off for my farm.”