New technology fine-tunes irrigation to cut costs and water waste

Posted 15 June 2017

Agricultural_fieldsA European Space Agency (ESA) spin-off project has the potential to preserve water supplies and guarantee crop irrigation for struggling Australian farmers.

The ambitious plan of Divirod CEO Javier Marti, a former ESA employee, is to tackle irrigation overuse by using satnav technology. 

Divirod's approach is based on a concept developed at the ESA’s technology centre in the Netherlands: using reflected satellite navigation signals for remotely sensing the Earth’s surface. The company then uses a specialised software to measure variations in large fields down to a resolution of five square metres or less. 

“Our system compares reflected and direct satnav signals to reveal the moisture content of soil and crops,” Marti explained.

“We anticipate our system could save farmers around 30% in operating costs in terms of both water and energy. Crop yields depend on many factors, but we estimate we could also improve yields by 10 to 12%.”

Javier worked with ESA engineer Manuel Martin-Neira on the ESA’s soil moisture and ocean salinity (SMOS) satellite.

It was there that he got the idea of using reflected satnav signals from a project proposed by Martin-Neira for remote sensing.

“Satellites carrying altimeters that use radar can only measure along the line of flight, whereas I realised that using reflected satnav signals would let us take measurements from several different points,” Marti said. 

As satnav technology technology advances, Marti said that resolutions could be reduced to below a square metre. 

“This detailed coverage can be integrated into irrigation systems so that water is delivered precisely to different areas across each field as required,” he said. 

It's now undergoing final testing in the central US as part of the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, where the vast Ogallala aquifer supplies almost a third of the groundwater for crop irrigation in the country.

Over the coming months, several farms in the area will trial the system by regulating and optimising their irrigation to reduce water consumption.

Although irrigation is the main focus of this project, the company is also exploring ways to apply the satnav technology to moderating water use in municipal landscapes.