Student startup tackles wasteful agriculture irrigation with drone technology
Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office
5/2/2017 1:22:57 PM
According to the World Water Forum, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the earth’s water consumption. That was the motivation for the University of Illinois startup, Skydro, which is developing a solution to help farmers irrigate their crops in a smarter manner.
“We wanted to tackle a problem that can have an impact on society,” said co-founder and ECE ILLINOIS sophomore Kevin Guo. “Installing water efficient shower heads are just a small slice of the pie when it comes to water conservation. The focus has to be on the agriculture sector.”
For most farmers, irrigation is inefficient and its method of determining where and for how long a field or a part of the field needs watering is an inexact science.
Skydro is developing a drone that would autonomously fly over a field and, through ground penetrating radar (GPR), detect the moisture level at different depths in the soil. Archeologists use the technique to determine if there are objects below the surface to help know where to dig.
“What sets GPR apart from similar technologies is the fact that it penetrates objects,” Guo said. “It can filter out all signals and can take a look at the frequencies at the depths you want to be measured. The technology is proven, but we’re working on making the drone big enough and the sensor small enough to be able to work together.”
The sensor will relay the data back to a system, which will then compile a map to help farmers know where and how much to water.
“In the end, we are trying to link this into irrigation systems, so it becomes completely automatic,” Guo said of its ambitious goals. “The system would maximize water efficiency because it would only target areas that actually need water.”
In addition to saving water, farmers are motivated to water correctly because both over-watering or under-watering have a significant impact on crop yield.
In defining the problem and the solution, Guo and his co-founder Pramith Devulapall, a sophomore in engineering physics at Case Western Reserve University, have met with about a dozen farmers in Illinois, Oregon, and Kansas, who are excited about Skydro’s potential for improving crop yield. They have found a wide range of sophistication among those farmers in how they approach irrigation. Many have considered implementing irrigation systems with drip irrigation, which would work hand-in-hand with Skydro’s GPR technology.
“In places where water isn’t scarce, they have spray irrigation, which has no precision at all,” Guo reported. “Others use center pivot irrigation, which allows a farmer to vary the irrigation, but it must be done manually.”
“These ground-based sensors only take snapshots at a fixed spot in a field; thus you’re only given pinpricks of data,” Guo said. “You’d have to place a whole lot of those sensors to get close to comparable coverage you get with GPR.”
The Skydro team has developed an algorithm that calculates data from the sensor and is applying for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for further technology development. It also plans to file a provisional patent this summer. Also, Skydro has been approached by at least one GPR company that is interested in combining forces. This could help in developing the technology faster.
As far as a business model, they believe they could sell the drones for between $4,000 and $5,000 apiece and can provide the back-end software and analysis for a monthly fee. Once perfected, there are other potential applications, such as with earth dams and landscaping.
“We feel we can have a serious impact on a new trend of precision agriculture, which is driven by a lot of data,” Guo concluded. “We hope we can reduce water use and at the same improve crop yield, which will, in turn, produce more food to better feed the world’s growing population.”