Tech corner Irrigation 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution is underway, and it’s time for irrigation technology to join the party. By Jay M. Ham, PhD


any experts believe we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution (known as Industry 4.0), a transforma- tion driven by digital integration and artificial intelligence

in manufacturing. The focus of Industry 4.0 is automation and control of cyber-physical systems: namely, optimization of processes using digital networks, big data and AI combined with on-the- ground machines, sensors and human managers.

A “smart” irrigation system is a perfect cyber-physical test bed, a collection of hardware for delivering water in a spatially precise, timely manner assisted by algorithms that use multiple layers of digital information from sensors, drones, weather stations, soil maps, etc.

The irrigation industry has done a remarkable job developing new hardware and local control systems for both agricultural and landscape applications. One must only walk the floor at the annual Irrigation Show to view the innovative physical technology at our disposal. While the hardware for irrigation is advanced and mature, digitization of irrigation systems and their management is in its infancy and, I would argue, lagging other industries.

It is becoming almost self-evident that irrigation systems of the future will be controlled by managers that rely heavily on input

AI, machine learning

User interface

Diagram of an Irrigation 4.0 control system

utilizing a wireless underground

sensor network to measure soil moisture

Source: Adapted from Ojha et al. 2015. Wireless sensor networks for agriculture: The

state-of-the-art in practice and future challenges, Computers and Electronics in Agriculture.

Underground sensor node Above-ground IoT gateway

Under-to-above-ground node

Canopy and environmental sensors

Irrigaon system


from AI and machine-learning algorithms. That said, we have some work to do before Irrigation 4.0 becomes a reality. Here are some subject areas that deserve our attention.

Developing Irrigation 4.0 applications today

Low-cost IoT sensor technology The days of scheduling irrigation by collecting weather data, calculating evapotranspiration and running a simple water balance model (checkbook method) will become a thing of the past. Instead, our fields and landscapes will be populated with low-cost “internet of things” sensors, all feeding live data to the cloud and AI-based control systems.

AI algorithms only work when systems can “learn” how to react to input variables using data collected from field measurements. A new generation of low-cost sensors is being developed to meet this need. For example, at Colorado State University we are working on wireless underground sensor networks (see diagram) for measuring soil moisture at a very granular level. Other IoT sensors will include measurements of plant canopy stress,

Weather forecast

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6 Irrigation TODAY | April 2019

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