A team of University of Connecticut researchers engineered a soil moisture sensor that responds to the global need to regulate water consumption in agriculture.

The soil moisture sensor developed by the team of University of Connecticut engineers—environmental, mechanical, and chemical—is expected to save nearly 35 per cent of water consumption and cost far less than what exists.

“Advances in hydrological science are hampered by the lack of onsite soil moisture data,” said Guiling Wang, an author of the study and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. “It’s really hard to monitor and measure things underground. The challenge is that the existing sensors are very expensive and the installation process is very labor intensive.”

Current sensors that are used in a similar way range from $100 to $1,000 each, while the one developed at the University of Connecticut cost $2, according to the researchers.

An alternate monitoring option, soil moisture data collected from remote sensing technology such as radars and radiometers on board satellites, has suffered from low resolution. But the new technology developed by University of Connecticut Professor Baikun Li’s group can provide high spatio-temporal resolution data needed for hydrology model development in Wang’s group.

In the University of Connecticut prototype, wires are connected from the sensors to an instrument that logs data. Researchers conducted field tests of the sensors—performing side-by-side tests with commercial sensors under various environmental conditions throughout a 10-month period. The effects of the environmental variations on soil moisture throughout the period were clearly reflected.

Accurate soil moisture sensing is essential to ensure a water level that produces the most robust crops while not wasting the natural resource. In some states in the U.S.— Florida and California, for example—irrigation water usage has become tightly restricted.

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The University of Connecticut researchers are also working on a nitrogen sensor that is the same model of the water sensors. These would help provide farmers with information on when fields need fertilizing. Currently, nitrogen sensors are not available using this type of technology.

“This is really an exciting start to a much larger scope of things we have in mind,” said Li, an author of the study and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

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