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Future of Farming, UI Professor develops smart sensor for farm irrigation

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) — Farming across the midwest is about to get a lot smarter thanks to smart sensors being developed at the University of Iowa.

Professor Jun Wang at the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering knows weather changes can make it or break it for farmers. His background in Atmospheric studies and understanding of farming practices led him to develop a way for farmers to adopt a concept called precision farming.

“The soil moisture may be higher in one place and not in another place. You may get the rain you want and not in another place. So we try to capture that kind of information so that farmers know we don’t need to use a one size fits all approach when it comes to irrigation,” said Professor Wang.

From a microchip prototype to a smart sensor, Professor Wang and his team are working to take the guesswork out of farming and help farmers save money on water resources. The smart sensor they’ve developed gathers real-time information and sends it back to an online data cloud system, via wifi.

“What we do is try to see how we can improve the irrigation efficiency by using 21st-century technology,” said Wang.

The microchip inside these sensors allows it to collect data about air temperature, precipitation, and humidity. All of that information is sent to a cloud. That’s where postdoctoral researcher Lorena Castro comes in. Castro converts the data into usable information for farmers to interact with on the website and app she developed.

“They need to install it and then come to this website to collect the data,” said Castro.

Phase two of the project is creating a soil sensor that goes underground and communicates with the smart sensor above ground. The soil sensor would provide farmers with information about soil saturation.

“So we don’t need to use a one size fits all approach to the irrigation. Maybe there are specific areas that the crops are in distress, the soil moisture definitely needs more,” said Wang.

The USDA awarded Wang with a $1.6 million grant to develop the project. With the help of Protostudios at the University of Iowa the team is working to make the soil sensors communicate in a way that will work in the fields.

Spencer Kuhl, a Prototype Development Engineer with Protostudios explains, “The new communication method is limited to miles and it’s very very low power. So now we’re able to deploy it in the farm and have one access point that all of the data enters into and over a cellular connection goes to our data servers.”

The idea is to have sensors about every 2 miles throughout farmland to give farmer precise data about irrigation. That’s why the low cost of the sensors is so important.

These smart sensors are ready to go in fields throughout Iowa. To get one of your own contact Professor Jun Wang at

The team hopes to have the soil sensor component ready for farmers in about two years, after testing completed.

More details about the project can be found here.

Feature photo credit Spencer Kuhl.

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Ashley Neighbor

Reporter, Cedar Rapids

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