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Smart Irrigation for Sustainability: A Greener Future

by Sunday Precious
Man using smartphone to control smart irrigation system, demonstrating convenient and precise watering management.

Smart Irrigation systems have been proven to substantially improve crop yield and the profitability of agriculture. Water and food are two of the most important commodities in the world, which makes agriculture crucial to humans.

However, due to climatic changes and the expansion of agriculture, the need for irrigation technology has become imperative to increase the productivity of farmers. While improved irrigation practices like sprinklers and hoses are far better options than olden days traditional practices of manual irrigation, these options alone are no longer viable.  

To efficiently utilize water resources, the use of smart irrigation systems is paramount. Facts have proven that when compared with normal irrigation technology, smart irrigation technology can reduce water waste by 20%-40%. In this article, we will dive into everything you need to know about smart irrigation systems and the role they play in environmental sustainability.

What is a Smart Irrigation System?

Smart irrigation System is a technology that uses science to save water in irrigation. The system incorporates technologies including the Internet of Things, mobile Internet, LORA, and remote sensing monitoring to preserve irrigation water and irrigate plants appropriately based on soil type and weather conditions. 

These solutions improve irrigation efficiency by minimizing water waste while preserving plant health and quality.

Major Difference Between Smart Irrigation Systems and Traditional Irrigation Systems

The major difference between the current irrigation system widely used in commercial farms in Africa and Smart irrigation systems lies in the controllers.  

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Unlike standard irrigation controllers which employ a pre-programmed schedule and timers, smart irrigation controllers monitor weather, soil conditions, evaporation, and plant water usage to automatically change the watering schedule to the real conditions of your farmland.

These controllers work using data collected from various sensors attached to them, helping farmers tailor watering schedules and run times automatically to meet specific landscape needs. 

How Smart Irrigation Systems Work

Smart irrigation uses various sensors to improve irrigation. The main sensors used are soil moisture sensor, wind speed sensor, evaporation sensor, leaf wetness sensor, and rain and snow sensor.

These sensors collect real-time data about your farmland using a data collector and transmit this data to a terminal platform.  The platform analyzes and studies the data. For example, if the soil moisture sensor collects data, it sends it to the terminal platform which analyzes the water volume of the area that needs to be irrigated and sends wireless commands to the nearest control valve at each point. The controller controls the water valve to open and irrigate the area with the precise amount of water to get optimal soil moisture. 

The fundamental goal of a smart irrigation system is to go beyond the basic function of water distribution. It includes other major objectives, such as water conservation, precision farming, enhanced agricultural output, and cost efficiency.

Components of Smart Irrigation System

The major components of a smart irrigation system as earlier stated are sensors and controllers. Let us consider some of them.

Smart Irrigation Sensors

There are various types of sensors. However, the major sensors used in smart irrigation systems include: 

1. Soil Moisture Sensor
Soil moisture sensor for smart irrigation systems, monitors water content in the ground.
Source: Shutterstock

The soil moisture sensor is a device that directly measures the moisture content of the soil. Simply put, it checks whether the soil is dry. Generally, the sensor is inserted into the same depth as the root of the plant to ensure that the measurement result is more accurate. To get the best of smart irrigation, it is advised to use more than one soil sensor in different areas of your farmland. 

These soil sensors are then connected to the nearest soil controller which is linked to the terminal platform. You can set the terminal platform to detect high and low alarm values for soil sensors in different regions. Once the soil moisture exceeds the alarm value, the controller closes the water valve, and when the soil moisture falls below the alarm value, the controller opens the water valve. According to different soil types, you can choose different soil moisture sensors. 

2. Evaporation sensor
Evaporation sensor for smart irrigation systems, detects atmospheric conditions affecting water loss.
Source: Renke

Evaporation sensors are devices used to measure the rate at which water evaporates from the soil surface. A high reading indicates a faster rate of evaporation, meaning the soil is drying out and your plants may need water. Conversely, a low reading suggests a slower evaporation rate, potentially due to factors like recent rain or high humidity, indicating your plants likely have enough moisture. Gathering this climate-related data can help to modify the irrigation duration and encourage water movement in the surrounding area. For example, if the sensor has a high reading it sends a signal to the controller to open the valve to irrigate your plants.  

3. Leaf Wetness Sensor
Leaf wetness sensor for smart irrigation systems, prevents watering during rain or morning dew.
Source: Rekeer

The leaf wetness sensor is similar to a leaf in that it imitates its features, allowing it to precisely reflect changes in leaf moisture. Farmers can determine whether the plants need water and when it is appropriate to water the soil by measuring leaf moisture. Compared to the evaporation sensor, the leaf wetness sensor detects the evaporation of plant leaves.

4. Rain/snow sensor
Rain sensor for smart irrigation systems, automatically pauses watering during rainfall.
Source: Ovio

When you’re watering your farmland and it starts to rain, you stop instantly. Watering in the rain wastes water and money while causing unneeded runoff. Smart irrigation also has this feature. The rain and snow sensor is the foundation for implementing this function. These sensors use metal wires on their surfaces to conduct electricity when rain or snowy conditions occur. When the material conducts electricity, it sends an electrical signal to the terminal platform, which alerts the controller to close the water valve immediately.

5. Wind sensors
Wind speed sensor for smart irrigation systems, adjusts watering based on wind conditions to prevent overspray.
Source: Getty Images

Watering during windy circumstances diminishes irrigation distribution uniformity across the landscape as well as the amount of water penetrating the soil profile. Using Wind sensors, smart irrigation stops the irrigation cycle if wind speed exceeds a specific reading. This can help reduce water waste, while also providing a healthy, attractive landscape. 

Now let’s consider the next important component of smart irrigation.

Smart Irrigation Controllers

Smart irrigation controllers are like the powerhouse of the system. They control the opening and closing of the valves.  Irrigation controllers can be separated into two main categories: Climate-based controllers and soil moisture-based controllers.

1. Climate-Based Controls

Climate-based irrigation controller for smart irrigation systems, automatically adjusts watering based on weather data.
Source: Extension Edu

Climate-based controllers, also known as evapotranspiration (ET) controllers, use local meteorological data to change irrigation schedules. Evapotranspiration is the result of evaporation from the soil surface and transpiration by plant components. These climate-based controls collect local weather data and modify irrigation run times so that your farm receives only the necessary amount of water.

2. Soil Moisture Sensor Controller

Soil moisture sensor controller for smart irrigation systems, manages watering based on real-time soil moisture levels.
Source: Extension Edu

The second form of smart irrigation controller is a soil moisture sensor controller. Instead of using meteorological data, soil moisture sensor controllers use a soil moisture sensor installed below ground in the root zone of your farmland to assess water requirements. The soil moisture sensor calculates soil volumetric water content. Volumetric water content is the proportion of total soil volume occupied by water. The controllers can be programmed to open the valves and begin irrigation when the volumetric water content reaches a predetermined reading. The suitable threshold value varies depending on the soil and the type of plants you have although it typically ranges from 10 to 40%.  

How Traditional Irrigation Systems Waste Water

While standard irrigation systems have helped traditional farmers to improve productivity, they have also caused waste of water in various ways. They include:

  • Poor Water Management: One of the biggest disadvantages of traditional irrigation methods is poor water management. These systems just need you to turn on the water valves and off them at any time you deem fit. This could lead to over-watering of plants as there is no data to let you know when the soil has gotten enough water. 
  • Irrigation controllers operate on a preset programmed schedule and timers: Standard irrigation systems when not manually turned off, often use preset controllers. Improper scheduling can lead to a lot of water waste. When you set your scheduling times, you are determining how frequently your farm is watered, how long it’s watered for, and the amount of water that is applied. An improperly programmed controller leads to overwatering.
  • Soil Erosion: Overwatering is a major contributor to soil erosion. When you use standard irrigation systems there is always a high chance of overwatering and waterlogging. This can lead to the loss of fertile topsoil, which can have a negative impact on crop yields. 

Benefits of Smart Irrigation for Sustainability

Some benefits of smart irrigation systems include: 

  • Innovative precision: Smart irrigation, also known as agronomic irrigation, provides farmers with recommendations on “where, when, and how much” water their crops require. Water use is optimised by autonomous analysis and consistent interpretation of all variables and agronomic data available on the farm. These technological solutions improve water efficiency, promote environmental sustainability, enhance work team effectiveness, and boost farm productivity.
  • Save manpower: Smart irrigation, unlike traditional irrigation methods, is automated. There is no need for the irrigator to walk around the irrigation field carrying the nozzle. There is no need to manually open or close the water valve. A mobile phone or a computer can handle the entire irrigation task. Stop worrying about the plants in the garden. You can have a nice time of relaxation without worrying about over-watering. 
  • Remote management: You do not need to be present in the irrigation area to perform monitoring, data analysis, and irrigation work. All you need is your mobile phone or computer. Simply turn on your phone at the appropriate time to monitor the plant’s growing progress. One person may handle numerous cloud platforms at the same time while irrigating hundreds of acres of farmland, significantly lowering labour expenses.

Conclusion

To summarise, smart irrigation systems represent a substantial leap in water conservation and agricultural sustainability. These systems use sensors and controllers to provide water exactly when and where plants need it, decreasing waste and increasing efficiency. Smart irrigation systems improve on traditional approaches by monitoring weather, soil conditions, and plant health to generate data-driven irrigation schedules.

The benefits extend beyond water conservation. Smart irrigation systems can improve crop yield, reduce manpower needs, and allow for remote management of farmland. As we face the challenges of climate change and population growth, smart irrigation offers a promising solution for a greener future. If you’re interested in exploring smart irrigation options for your lawn or farmland, stay glued to our weekly post to discover the different systems available and how this technology can contribute to a more sustainable future.

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