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Soil Monitoring Technology Allows Crops to Relay Precise Watering Needs to Farmers Via the Cloud

July 17, 2012 |

Imagine that your crops could call you by cell phone. What would they say? Would they be crying out for more water or frantically alerting you that they’re drowning?

The folks over at Indianapolis-based AquaSpy see their company as a sort of cell phone service that allows your crops to call home and tell growers when they’re hungry or thirsty. The Software as a Service (SaaS) company installs technology on growers’ land that closely monitors the soil’s moisture and chemical levels and the crops’ root uptake. The technology then collects the data using communication towers, analyzes it and sends it in easy-to-understand reports that are accessible right on grower’s computers and smartphones. As a byproduct of the advanced monitoring systems, many customers have touted water, energy and financial savings, said Bruce Moeller, the company’s CEO.

AquaSpy was founded in Adelaide, Australia in 1998 by a group of agrarians, said Moeller. (The company is now based in the United States under different ownership.)

“They were primarily agrarians who were frustrated with the fact that when a farmer had a field, he would go out and stick his finger in the wind and kind of feel the humidity and maybe dig a small hole to try and figure out if it was time to water or not,” he said. “That not only is very time-consuming, but it’s very inaccurate and wasteful as to resources.”

Moeller said the AquaSpy system takes some of the guesswork out of agriculture, helping growers know how much of their water and chemical inputs are actually needed.

“Having too much on is just like a human or any other organism being under water and holding their breath and not growing as a result of that,” Moeller said, noting this negatively impact both production costs and yield.

Water conservation in agriculture is no small issue. About 60 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses, and only about half of that water used for irrigation is reusable, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey. These resources are bound to become more precious as the world’s population increases. By 2050, there will need to be enough water to support agricultural systems that will have to feed an additional 2.7 billion people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Moeller says AquaSpy doesn’t pretend environmental sustainability is its top priority. When AquaSpy was founded, it was based on a goal of saving water around the world, especially since Australia was undergoing a drought at the time. Now the company has a different strategic focus—helping growers become more economically sustainable by making their growing practices more cost-effective and helping improve their yields. If anything, saving water and energy and reducing chemical leaching into the environment can become a byproduct of those efforts, he said.

AquaSpy makes no guarantees about what kinds of savings growers will experience—or that they will even save at all. Instead, Moeller says the company provides a guarantee that its customers will have the data to make informed decisions. However, he noted that growers using AquaSpy technology typically save about three inches of water per growing season for broad-acre crops, though those numbers can be much higher for some growers. It’s not uncommon to see anywhere from 1 percent to 3 percent of yield improvement, Moeller said, though some growers have told stories of yield improvements of 20 percent to 30 percent.

Spying On the Roots

Here’s how AquaSpy works: For an annual subscription of about $2,100 per system per year, AquaSpy installs its equipment (which is owned by the company itself) onto the grower’s land. This includes a 4-foot or 5-foot probe, or a vertical column, that is placed in a hole in the soil. The probe has sensors spaced every four inches along the probe. AquaSpy initially determines the field’s holding capacity for moisture. From there, it tracks the roots’ holding activity and growth.

The probe is connected to a communications tower powered by a small solar panel. Moeller compares those to the communications towers used by our cell phone providers as they receive information from the probes and send it out via cellular network to a secured website.

The data is then processed using agronomic algorithms. The data patterns allow AquaSpy to draw conclusions from the information and deliver those conclusions to the grower, Moeller said. The growers can then go to AquaSpy’s website at any time to see how their roots are doing and what irrigation actions are needed. (Customers can view a graphical depiction of their roots’ growth levels at various depths of the soil.)

Aqua Spy Solution graphic featuring the following: (1) the probe that measures moisture; (2) the solar powered communications tower that sends data on water needs to the farmer's computer (4) where the information is aggregated and processed. The system then sends email alerts to the farmer's (3) cell phone based on the processed data.

Email alerts made using color codes—green means the roots are doing fine; yellow means they have a cautionary window of 12, 24 or 36 hours (or whatever timeframe the grower sets) before an action needs to be applied; and red means the roots distressed and are below their refill point.

“I call us the crop whisperers,” Moeller said. “We take our signals from the actual growing organism.”

Tim Schmeeckle, owner and operator of Schmeeckle Farms Inc. in Gothenburg, Nebraska, uses 11 AquaSpy probes on his 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm. He said he started using it after realizing his area could be susceptible to regulation on how much water could be pumped since it’s located over the Ogallala Aquifer.

“I want to be ready to be able to grow the same amount of corn or more with less water,” he said.

Schmeeckle said his yields have increased since he started using AquaSpy last year, a tool he uses alongside variable rate irrigation techniques. Last year, he decreased his water usage by close to a third compared to the previous year, though this year will require more water application due to less rainfall, he said.

Changing Focus

AquaSpy has undergone some major changes in recent years. The company started by selling its hardware, leaving the analytics up to the grower. Moeller said growers had to take their computers out to the field to upload the data directly. The readouts looked something similar to EKG reports, Moeller said.

When Moeller joined the company in 2009, he decided he wanted to make the process simpler and less expensive. The company switched to a SaaS model where the services were cloud-based (meaning they access data using virtual servers via the Internet).

The company also changed its customer base. Moeller said AquaSpy used to focus on anything that had dirt, including golf courses, stadiums and residential lawns, in addition to agricultural land. AquaSpy now focuses solely on the agriculture industry, where Moeller says there’s a stronger demand.

In June 2010, AquaSpy was re-capitalized in a $5.8 million investment round by an Indiana-based, food-and-agriculture-focused venture capital firm, which is now called Cultivian Ventures. This resulted in a new commitment by AquaSpy to focus strictly on agriculture, particularly in the Midwest. In the process, the Australian owner group was bought out and ownership was transferred to new group, Moeller said. The headquarters were moved to Indianapolis.

Moeller said AquaSpy has systems in about 14 U.S. states and will be expanding to 17 states within the next year. (There are also some systems installed in other countries.) However, AquaSpy’s main concentration is in the states over the Ogallala Aquifer (such as Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado), in Midwestern states (such as Indiana, Iowa and Illinois) and also in Georgia and Florida.

Moeller said that while AquaSpy has a few competitors in its market, the competition isn’t fierce.

“It’s over a $1 billion market in the U.S. alone,” he said. “There’s about 5.5 million potential customers here just in the U.S., and no one competitor has even tens of thousands (of systems) installed, so we never run into one another. It’s a nascent technology that people are just now starting to understand.”

Moeller said AquaSpy is working on a new and more accurate measurement method that is about a quarter of the cost of its current method. The updated AquaSpy system will likely be beta tested this summer, reaching commercial production within the next year, he said.

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