Note: This a featured session summary from the Proceedings of the 2019 Water for Food Global Conference that took place April 29-30, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
This session began with four technical presentations representing the work of Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC) partners. The IIC is a joint initiative between private, public and university organizations addressing growing water scarcity in the western U.S. and worldwide.
"Modern irrigation – Irrigation 4.0 – is the quintessential Fourth Industrial Revolution system, which means it combines mechanical, digital and human inputs and tools."Jay Ham, professor of environmental physics and micrometeorology, Colorado State University, is using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help farmers make integrated irrigation decisions. With this work, Ham said, it may be “possible to get a 30% increase in crop productivity and a 30% decrease in water use over the next 30 years.” He said modern irrigation – Irrigation 4.0 – is the quintessential Fourth Industrial Revolution system, which means it combines mechanical, digital and human inputs and tools.
According to Ham, AI is going to completely transform the irrigation industry just as it is transforming many other industries. “The approach we used in the past has worked well,” he said, “but when, how much, and where to irrigate will be transformed.” In addition to making irrigation more efficient, AI reduces the price point of irrigation technology by 10% or 20%, he said, which makes it a disruptive technology. AI advancements in irrigation include:
- Internet of things (IoT). Narrowband IoT helps farmers get a reliable Internet connection in the field. They can set and transmit data to their phones for about three dollars a year.
- Weather data and forecasts. This technology is very accurate compared to a decade ago. Improvements allow weather forecasts two to three days ahead, which is ideal for irrigation management.
- Machine learning. There are so many developments in this area it’s hard to cover them all, Ham said. Essentially, the benefit of machine learning is that data gathered over many years can be used to improve systems quickly.
Overall, Ham said integration of data streams is important to optimize irrigation. The beauty of the IIC, he said, is that the organization can cover different crops, areas and types of organizations. “Democratization of technologies is important,” he said. “Data should not only be available to big companies but also accessible across the spectrum to everyone.”
According to Christopher Neale, director of research at DWFI, precipitation is the ultimate water source. However, it’s a challenge to manage water along the gradient represented by areas with different amounts of rainfall. This is a struggle facing Nebraska as well as many other areas of the world that must deal with variable precipitation.
Neale shared information about the Parallel 41 Flux Network, a project funded in its first year by the Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC), which is designed to help overcome this challenge. When it is complete, the system will consist of a network of eddy covariant energy balance flux towers, that measure real-time evapotranspiration. These ground data will validate satellite-based estimates of ET made using the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS). The towers also measure gradient precipitation, then serve the data to stakeholders.
The Parallel 41 network, when paired with satellite spatial ET products, will help calculate crop water use and drought indices with increased accuracy to help producers and others make growing decisions. Project partners currently are testing the satellite based evapotranspiration product in Brazil. “We can downscale the VIIRS product to 30 meters and look at smaller regions and irrigated areas” Neale said. “The challenge is that in parts of Africa and Asia, the agricultural field sizes are small.”
In Nebraska, the EC flux towers currently exist in seven locations. The goal is to distribute more towers all along the gradient over the next three years. Each tower is equipped with new technology from LI-COR, a Nebraska biosciences research and manufacturing company.The LI-COR software, FluxSuite, works on smart devices and computers, which improves timing and reduces costs, because human beings do not have to travel to towers in remote areas for continuous maintenance. The towers’ gas analyzer also measures CO2 fluxes, which can be used for carbon balance studies in different ecosystems. The actual ET values can be compared to reference ET to get real-time crop coefficients for a given time of the year.
Cathy Lavish, professor and extension specialist with Kansas State University, said joining the IIC allowed Kansas State University to expand its study of soil moisture sensors and recruit a high-quality PhD student, as well as collaborating with another study at the university to look at cool-season grasses and stressing them with 0% to 50% water.
The study is designed to help end-users correctly implement research discoveries. “Education is really important, and research is critical,” Lavish said, “but if the end-user is not doing things correctly it doesn’t work.”
The objective of this study is to look at sensors, lab analysis, soil texture, soil moisture curves, and then take that information to the field and determine trigger thresholds. “We will be able to compare data from the sensors to traditional irrigation,” Lavish explained. The comparison will help researchers determine the best turf grasses to use and then devise best methods of controlling water application with the help of moisture sensors, flow meters and rainout shelters.
“Much of the 20 million hectares of turfgrass in the United States is irrigated, and most turf people ignore soil moisture,” lavish explained, “but much water can be saved by properly using soil moisture sensors.”
In the past, many faculty and universities developed new technologies, but the technology tended to never make it to market. According to David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State University, the university has developed a network to “bring people out of university to improve irrigation water management” by getting programs and services from concept to product. The ultimate goal is to develop a national network supporting irrigation industry startups and get products to market faster with an accelerator program.
“It’s a three-month program that is all about getting people together with experts so they can start to generate some sales, then double and triple their sales in a short period of time,” Zoldoske explained. The benefits include creation of jobs – about 300 so far.
Zoldoske said the California Energy Commission set up four regional accelerator clusters, tapping local expertise as well as experts from the University of California system and other resources critical to business startup. The project has gone as far as Kansas and Colorado to gain resources and expertise needed.
“We looked to the world to find solutions,” Zoldoske said. “We want to keep California competitive and productive, so we need to look worldwide to increase our success rate.”
Panel Discussion: Creating a Gateway to Reach Common Goals
Following the presentations, Sally Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, moderated a panel discussion. The mission of the Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC), according to Rockey, is to transfer successful irrigation techniques from one place to another to make sure water is available for future generations. “We are working on tailored situations, and we know we can’t do it alone,” she explained. “IIC is a gateway to help us reach common goals ... and figure out how to translate ideas into products.”
Albert Maurin, sales and tactical marketing manager, FieldNET & FieldNET advisor of the Lindsay Corporation, explained that collaborations in agricultural technology have increased so much that it is obvious no one can be the expert in everything. Panel members discussed the benefits of creating a “precompetitive space to look at crosscutting issues.” The greatest benefit of vetting products in a precompetitive space is having the opportunity to look at issues together — even when stakeholders are competitors.
Several panel members stressed the need to make technology easy to use. “Producers have the ability and desire to use technology, but it has to be in a package that is usable for them,” Maurin explained. John Kastl, senior director of innovation and intellectual property, Valley Irrigation, added that “growers are starting to drown in data layers,” which further emphasizes the need to make products easy to use. Automation may be part of the answer. For example, data input often can be automated rather than requiring farmers to enter data manually.
Panel members touched on ways their companies are helping make new technologies accessible throughout the world, not just to U.S. farmers. Several companies produce products, such as irrigation scheduling software, that don’t require large capital investments or are free to smallholder farmers.
There is a substantial cost for the hardware and gear to obtain satellite imagery and calculations, but it can be very low-cost or free for producers to access the resulting data
Aric Olson, president of Jain Irrigation, stressed that different regions have different approaches to irrigation, and we can accomplish a great deal when representatives of many regions come to the table together. For example, he said, just as manufacturers are coming together to tackle the problem of plastic in oceans, “we can come together under one umbrella to tackle the environmental issue of nitrates using technology.”
Encouragement for organizations to work together was echoed by Valeriy Kovalskyy, a remote sensing scientist on the The Climate Corporation’s geospatial team. “We work with growers and others to match opportunities with solutions,” he said. “This helps us keep our radar on solutions that will make their way to the customer. We need partners to make tailored solutions for irrigation goals.”
Through a lively question-and-answer session, the panel and attendees addressed a number of challenges facing scientists, administrators, funders and producers as they develop irrigation innovation:
- Over-irrigation and water waste
- Recharging water below the root zone
- Irrigators making decisions they shouldn’t make, in spite of industry education
- The need to produce standards across the industry
One of the most challenging issues in irrigation innovation is adoption by producers. “A small percentage of people are taking advantage of the technology we have right now,” one panel member suggested. “Could we do research on the behaviors of farmers and consumers ... and then figure out what we need to do to help them and change their behavior?”
Moderator: Sally Rockey, Executive Director, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
- Jay Ham, Environmental Physics and Micrometeorology Professor, Colorado State University
- Cathie Lavis, Professor & Extension Specialist, Landscape Management, Kansas State University
- Christopher Neale, Director of Research, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute
- David Zoldoske, Director, Center for Irrigation Technology, Fresno State University
- George Burba, Science & Strategy Fellow, LI-COR Biosciences
- Deborah Hamlin, CEO, Irrigation Association
- John Kastl, Sr. Director of Innovation and Intellectual Property, Valley Irrigation
- Val Kovalskky, Lead Remote Sensing Scientist, Geospatial Team of The Climate Corporation
- Albert Maurin, Sales & Tacticacl Marketing Manager, FieldNET & FieldNET Advisor, Lindsay Corporation
- Aric Olson, President, Jain Irrigation