SFU students develop automated irrigation system to preserve water consumption

The agriculture sector could optimize water usage by rethinking watering systems

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PHOTO: Henry Be / Unsplash

Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

An automated irrigation monitoring (AIM) system to reshape the agriculture sector’s water management was made by School of Sustainable Energy Engineering students. In an interview with The Peak, project co-lead Mackenzie Calder said the team aimed to “reduce how much water is needed by trying to shift the perspective on how farmers water fields in the first place.”

Calder explained crops are currently watered on a timer-based system, often not considering climate or daily rain patterns. The AIM system helps to water crops with only the volume of water they require. It does so by monitoring soil moisture levels with a sensor that controls watering systems.

The team reported some countries use as much as 85–90% of their extracted freshwater for their agriculture, with most of that becoming runoff and contaminating the environment. 

Over-watering crops leads to massive amounts of water runoff that returns to natural water systems such as streams, rivers, and lakes. The water runoff is “carrying a whole lot of nitrogen, and pesticides, and things that harm the ecosystem beyond the agricultural sector,” said Calder. By using a sensor-based system, farmers can limit the amount of excess water and the amount of runoff contaminating the surrounding area. 

Pesticides are potentially harmful to humans and can cause chronic and acute health effects. They can also be toxic for other organisms in the environment. The Safe Drinking Water Foundation reported that pesticides can remain in soil and water networks for years. 

BC’s agricultural water management website states that 3% of water consumed in BC is used for drinking water, the industrial sector, commercial sector, or agricultural sector. Calder estimates that this 3% does not include the large volume of extracted water that becomes runoff.

The team includes co-project lead Rajat Agrawal, Harleen Dhillon, Jacob Erickson, Erfan Ferdosian, and Paula Themmen.

“The way we approached it was, what if we made the agricultural watering process smarter?” said Calder. 

The AIM system “would allow farmers to track their water usage over seasons and compare current watering requirements to previous years,” according to the team’s report. This would mean changes to soil’s ability to hold water or factors such as climate change fluctuations could be tracked and recorded. 

Calder said the exact data for how much water could be saved with this method of watering is unknown as more research would be needed.