"Cheap sensors for smarter farmers" help farmers make better decisions

Many of the technologies showcased in this year's ARPA-E Summit were in the farming sector. Here are two that caught this writer's eyes.

First up is a 3D-printed, biodegradable soil sensor that checks moisture and nitrogen levels. One of the benefits of using print electronics is being able to mass-produce at a low cost, says Gregory Whiting at the University of Colorado, Boulder, one of the principal investigators of the team working on the sensors. "Agriculture is a pretty cost constrained industry," Whiting says, and 3D-printed sensors allow farmers to place many sensors throughout their large farmlands—often hundreds of acres—without spending a ton of money.

And this enables the farmers to monitor soil conditions in greater detail, Whiting says. Depending on factors such as how the sun hits the ground, the amount of water or the fertilizer needed could vary patch by patch. Traditional sensors were too expensive for the farmers to buy in large quantities, and, as a result, the special resolution wasn't high enough to reflect this variability. With the new, cheap sensors, farmers will be able to collect data on their farms without worrying about the variability.

One problem with mass-producing sensors, however, is that it creates a lot of waste. That's why Whiting and his colleagues decided on using biodegradable materials, ­­such as zinc and wood. But this solution also posed a challenge: What if the sensor degrades before the job is done?

Whiting and his team solved this issue by encapsulating the sensor parts using beeswax or soy wax. The protective wax casing ensures moisture and nitrogen sensing parts, made from zinc, to operate properly for the desired amount of time, typically a few months until the crops fully grow. And by the end of that period, the casing would start to break down, and the sensor would degrade.

Read the complete article at www.spectrum.ieee.org.

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