Honors Gallery

Sensor Based Variable Rate Irrigation Control Increases Crop Water Productivity

Award: Technology Focus

Year: 2020

Award Type: National

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) – Plains Area

For the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the road to a better autonomous irrigation management system has been paved with CRADAs.  

The decade-long quest for an autonomous technology-based solution to the irrigation challenge of an increasingly limited water supply was made possible by multiple Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) between ARS and key industry players. The result was the proprietary Irrigation Scheduling Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (ISSCADA) system. (See page 9 for more details about the outcomes and benefits of the partnerships, as well as the list of individual team members.) 

ARS designed a wireless sensor network of non-contact, crop infrared thermometers (IRTs) with a narrow field of view to replace the miles of wire previously required to place IRTs on a moving irrigation system to scan the crop for water stress. ARS worked with CRADA partner Dynamax Inc. of Houston to commercialize the sensor and wireless network system for use in irrigation management. This effort resulted in the commercial introduction of the Dynamax SapIP-IRT in 2016. Available soil water sensors were inaccurate and required long wires, so ARS developed and patented an accurate soil water sensor through two CRADAs and two SBIR grants with partner Acclima Inc. of Meridian, Idaho.

The node and gateway system is inexpensive and solar powered, and the data can be accessed from the cloud by the ISSCADA system. 

ARS then worked with Acclima and other ARS laboratories through a third CRADA to develop and commercialize a network composed of wireless nodes that gather data from multiple soil water sensors and gateways that collect data by radio from multiple nodes and transmit it to the internet cloud through cellular networks. Beta tests were conducted with the ARS system in 2016-18 and with the first commercial system in 2019 in Idaho, Maryland and three other southeastern US states, as well as Jordan and Uzbekistan. The node and gateway system is inexpensive and solar powered, and the data can be accessed from the cloud by the ISSCADA system. 

ARS established relationships with other CRADA partners to supply the subsystems to Valmont Industries Inc. of Valley, Nebraska, for use in the integrated ISSCADA system, which was transferred to Valmont through three CRADAs and a patent license. Field testing — the focus of the third Valmont CRADA — with a variety of crops (corn, cotton, potato, sorghum and soybean) demonstrated the effectiveness of the system in substantially increasing the crop yield per unit of irrigation water applied while surpassing countywide average yields where tested.  

Uniform irrigation can oversupply water to some parts of a field, causing losses of nutrients to deep percolation, while undersupplying other, drought-prone parts. The site-specific ISSCADA system increases crop water productivity and nutrient use efficiency while cutting pumping costs by reducing unneeded irrigation, by applying water where and when it is needed in the field, and by decreasing risk associated with regulated deficit irrigation that can be used to increase crop water productivity.