A moisture sensor that tells tree and vine growers when to irrigate is a recent example of exciting technology in agriculture. Attaching the unit to one tree or vine in a 10-acre block usually provides all the information a grower needs.
The information collected by the sensor results from its measurements of the water drawn from the soil by tiny cilia along a tree or vine’s roots. Its attachment to the stalk of a vine or trunk of a tree sends data to a cloud which can be transmitted to a desk-based computer, or even a phone.
The concept sounds simple for the unit called FloraPulse, but its development has taken years, beginning at New York’s Cornell University. The company occupies an office near the University of California’s campus at Davis, coordinating installations in an almond orchard in Arbuckle and a vineyard in Galt
The story of the unit’s.conception and development at Cornell appeared in the July issue of the popular national publication Western Fruit Grower, originated in San Francisco, published now in Willoughby,OH.
The article credits Alan Lakso, emeritus fruit crop physiologist at Cornell, with basic development of the unit, the outcome of his 25-year desire to create a measuring unit less bulky, less manual and more accurate than traditional pressure chambers. In 2007 he teamed with Abe Stroock, a professor in Cornell’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who was studying the physics of water stress in plants.
One of Strook’s students, Vinay Pagay, performed initial work, but building the first functional sensor prototype was the accomplishment of then PhD student Michael Santiago, now the representative of FloraPulse at Davis.
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The microsensor is described as a very small chip held in a cylinder that is about a quarter of an inch in diameter. By cellular wireless transmission it sends readings to FloraPulse’s website or to an app on a grower’s phone. A grower can receive the information along with potential recommendations, like suggestions for applying irrigation water.
The cylinder or sleeve attaches to the tree or vine by way of a minute hole drilled in the plant. The sensor slides into a protective cylinder. Registering how water moves to and from a tree or vine is one of the goals for the developers of the unit, as well as registration of the way weather and soil moisture affect a plant’s system and the way trees and vines express water stress.
It is not surprising that considerable attention is being focused on the water usage of productive plants, with new emphasis and concern expressed about the availability of irrigation water for agricultural use. Even in New York concern about water use and plant stress has resulted in experimental use of the FloraPulse unit in apple trees and even corn plants.
One of Santiago’s continuing tasks is to reduce information received from the sensor to become clear cut recommendations. He says many details are involved in using the information correctly. “The measurement by itself doesn’t tell you the whole story,” he says. “You want to look at the number and the history of where the plant has been for the last few days.”
So, where might a tree or vine go in search of water? Maybe a nearby horse trough, or even a swimming pool – yours or mine – bringing agricultural technology closer than you might like.
Gotta keep up with that galloping technology as it advances into agriculture It may be a comforting reminder that FloraPulse was years in development.