Smart Irrigation

By Gabrielle Stannus

Is your business still hand-watering or using irrigation controllers operating on a preset programmed schedule and timers? If so, now might be the time to consider installing ‘smart irrigation’ so your plants only get water when they really need it.

The early adopters in our industry are now installing ‘smart irrigation’ controllers to monitor weather, soil conditions, evaporation and plant water use to automatically adjust the watering schedule to actual conditions of their nursery. When hooked up to the ‘Internet of Things’ via a Wifi network or Bluetooth connection, these ‘smart irrigation’ controllers provide real time data to these growers enabling them to monitor and control their irrigation systems via a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

What makes smart irrigation ‘smart’?
According to Ron Hall of Turf magazine, smart irrigation technology provides its user with the ability to:

  1. Adjust watering run times based on weather data or soil moisture data on a daily basis
  2. View and make changes to a controller from a computer, tablet or smartphone
  3. Sense flow
  4. Sense high flow and shut a system down when high flow is detected and send an alert, either via email or text message, to a technician to let them know there is a problem
  5. Generate reports so you can analyse data to make better decisions about water management 1

Benefits of smart irrigation
Bryan Ward, Chief Executive Officer, Irrigation Australia Limited (IAL), says that by automating and upgrading current systems to allow for these ‘smart irrigation’ systems to be installed and operated, retail and production nurseries will reduce labour and water consumption, and maximise production yield. “The pros are many in terms of efficiencies allowing current labour to be employed in other parts of the business such as customer service, maintenance and so on. The cons can include upfront costs which needs be considered against the return on the investment and staff training to use the systems effectively.” Brian says.

Open source and voice control on the way
Even now, ‘smart irrigation’ is making its next technological leap. Just across the Tasman Sea, Autogrow has released OpenMinder™, an open-source DIY root zone monitor project targeted to technology developers and for application with small growers2. Released under a Creative Commons license, OpenMinder™ provides an open-source Application Programming Interface (API) used in conjunction with a Raspberry Pi HAT. Autogrow also claims to have created the first ever talking automated growing system, using Amazon’s virtual assistant ‘Alexa’, and their IntelliGrow API3. So voice-enabled irrigation control may soon be with us!

A tool is only as good as the person using it
Bryan says that there is a lack of appropriate training and knowledge in how to use these new smart irrigation systems effectively. “The main issue we see is the need to have adequate training and knowledge to use these systems effectively and resulting in less water consumption for better crop yield. Interpretation of the data is the crucial issue”, says Bryan. “Training on the basics and principles of nursery production and water and soil management will give this technology the best return”. As a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), Irrigation Australia delivers courses that may benefit nurseries seeking to better understand and implement these new technologies. This training covers topics including Irrigation Efficiency, Introduction to Irrigation, Irrigation Pumps and Systems, and Soil-Water-Plant training.

Looking to get in on the act?
If you are interested in acquiring smart irrigation technology, make sure you conduct a thorough product review first, as well as training in how to use it. Also, why stick to smart irrigation alone? You may want to consider an integrated system that enables you to control all climatic variables within your greenhouse, e.g. heating and cooling.

So ask yourself these questions to help you select the best system to suit your needs:

  • Does it have an irrigation control? (It goes without saying!)
  • Is the price right?

Is the analytical service provided as part of the package or will you have to pay an extra subscription fee? Or are only historic records saved?

  • How does the system provide alerts to you? Via email or smartphone? Which better suits your technological needs?
  • Is the system app-based or linked to a web portal or both? Does this suit your needs (smartphone or computer?)
  • What other environmental sensors is it equipped with? Would your business also benefit from those?
  • Does it have a soil, dosing and/or light control?
  • Is it equipped with Remote Power Control?

And if you are like me and prefer to review products in person, check out the latest smart irrigation systems on display at next year’s Landscape Irrigation Conference & Exhibition. This event will be held at the Gold Coast Convention Centre from 18 to 20 June 2019. Irrigation Australia will partner with NGIA to bring the latest technology to growers.

References
1. Hall, R 2017, '5 Reasons Smart Irrigation Requires Smart Water Managers', Turf, 14 July 2018, viewed 21 November 2018, https://www.turfmagazine.com/irrigation/smart-irrigation-managers/
2. Autogrow 2018, ‘Autogrow unveils OpenMinder – an open-source solution for water monitoring’, press release, 29 August 2018, viewed 21 November 2018, https://autogrow.com/2018/08/29/autogrow-unveils-openminder-an-open-source-solution-for-water-monitoring/
3. Autogrow 2018, ‘Autogrow’s API and Amazon’s Alexa leads to world first talking AgTech system’, press release, 8 June 2018, viewed 21 November 2018, https://autogrow.com/2018/06/08/autogrows-api-and-amazons-alexa-leads-to-world-first-talking-agtech-system/

Further reading
Nursery Production Farm Management System: http://nurseryproductionfms.com.au/irrigation-water/
Smart Irrigation: https://www.ngia.com.au/Story?Action=View&Story_id=2364
Water management best practice guidelines: https://www.ngia.com.au/Section?Action=View&Section_id=556
Smart Greenhouse Climate & Control Systems: https://www.postscapes.com/greenhouse-climate-and-control-systems/
Smart Greenhouse Remote Monitoring Systems: https://www.postscapes.com/smart-greenhouses/
Smart Irrigation in IoT: 12 Important Things To Know: https://dzone.com/articles/smart-irrigation-with-iot-top-12-things-to-know
Smart Irrigation: 10 Companies to Watch in 2018: https://www.disruptordaily.com/smart-irrigation-10-companies-watch-2018/