Reno, NV Startup Sees Opportunity in High Tech, Inexpensive Irrigation Control Systems for Small Farmers
January 31, 2013 | Nicola Kerslake
When Reno, NV based sustainable agriculture enthusiast Eric Jennings noticed one morning that, yet again, his irrigation system had watered his sidewalk more than his backyard farm, he decided that it was time to put his engineering skills to good use. “Water is expensive and scarce in this area, and wasting it just bugged me so much that I started tinkering around in the garage” Jennings noted. Most of the commercially available water irrigation control systems were either prohibitively expensive or excessively complex; “there was just nothing around designed for the small farmer” he concluded.
Around six months’ later, he’d created Pinoccio; a small, cheap microcontroller with an embedded WiFi unit that could be combined with a soil moisture sensor to control irrigation remotely. Each unit has its own IP address, and can be accessed either through Pinoccio’s open source platform, or by combining it with your own software. If you’re installing it in an area without WiFi, the unit can store up to two weeks’ worth of data for download next time your SmartPhone is in range. The units can also communicate with one another. Mercifully, Jennings also realized that few have his tech savvy, and has made the units easy to set up; “I was thinking that it has to be as easy and intuitive as using an Apple product.” Basically, Pinoccio would allow a small farmer to quickly set up an irrigation control system, at a cost of a few hundred dollars rather than many thousands.
Jennings, a Reno, NV native, is an engineer by training, a serial entrepreneur and a graduate of the prestigious TechStars accelerator program, so a natural next step for him was to find a co-founder and launch a startup to market Pinoccio. Sally Carson was a former colleague whose background in user interface design at Yahoo! was a perfect fit for the project; she brought great understanding of how people interact with the internet. To date, the team has launched the microcontroller board and its open software platform. Each microcontroller can be added to a sensor, or shield, that measures a specific environmental metric, such as water moisture or vibration, so that you can adapt it to your specific task. The team has its water moisture shield at prototype stage, and expects to launch it later this year. It also expects others to create their own shields.
Following some research, the newly formed team realized that their creation may have broader appeal. “We took it to a couple of open hardware conferences and people were coming up with awesome ways of using it” Jennings adds. Sustainable agriculture applications are among those on the top of the list. The water sensor alone has applications in any farming area that requires multiple sensors, such as where there are numerous microclimates to contend with, making it especially useful for high value added crops such as vineyards. With the addition of a humidity sensor, a relatively simple task, the sensor could be used in indoor agriculture systems, reducing the amount of time that farmers need to spend checking plants, and alerting them immediately if there’s an issue with environmental conditions. Given that some crops can perish in a little as a few hours of poor conditions, this is a significant benefit. The microcontroller board is sufficiently cheap – it’s $49 at present, and Pinoccio expects prices to fall as production volumes rise – that it can be used by small farmers who couldn’t afford existing options, saving them both water and time.
The team is currently raising funding sufficient for FCC testing ($10,000) and its first production run ($50,000) through a crowdfunding IndieGoGo campaign. Production will be in the US, something that the team hopes to maintain as capacity grows, and the first units will ship in July. With 16 days to go, the campaign is less than a few thousand dollars away from its $60,000 target, and has garnered attention from the likes of Wired magazine. It’s also won a number of plaudits for the size (less than half of that of the closest competitor) and flexibility of the unit, and is in the zeitgeist of the current hardware hacking movement that encompasses events such as FarmHacks.
As to the future, the team is picking out office and manufacturing space, and gearing up for its first production run. “We’re just excited to see where it ends up” Jennings concludes.
For transparency, the author is on the Advisory Board of Pinoccio; she owns no equity in the Company.