Agricultural Research Service scientists are developing a system that saves water by using aerial imagery and ground-based sensors to determine the irrigation needs of small sections of cultivated fields.
Conventional irrigation practices, even when based on modern management and water application techniques, can be wasteful because they assume crop water needs are uniform throughout an entire field, according to Douglas Hunsaker, an agricultural engineer at the ARS Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Ariz. It also is extremely difficult to go into a large field and visually observe and quantify different water needs for specific areas.
Farmers are beginning to use remote sensing technology to monitor crop growth, fertilizer needs and field conditions. Hunsaker's goal is to combine one remote sensing aerial image of a field with a system of wireless sensors tied to computer software that will accurately determine the irrigation needs of small areas on a daily basis throughout the season.
Ideally, farmers could identify areas with high or low water needs with data transmitted to their computers and, using either a drip or a sprinkler system, adjust irrigation levels based on the data. The technology could be particularly useful in the parched Southwestern United States, where conserving water is a major priority.