Aug 28, 2023

8 min read

Smart sensors to keep your plants happy

You probably wonder every now and then if that plant in your office or living room is getting enough water and feed.  And what about your lawn - are you watering enough, or perhaps rather overspending water? Smart sensors can cast some light on such uncertainties - helping to keep your plants and garden in shape while spending just the right amount of water and feeds. Now, if we think of city gardens, parks, and all other green public spaces, a finely balanced use of water, fertilizers, and other inputs can actually have a sizeable impact - saving large amounts of precious water and minimizing chemical pollution in urban environments. In this article, we will look at how smart sensors for agriculture can also make a difference in managing green urban environments in a sustainable manner.

In previous articles, we have introduced precision agriculture and addressed the use of smart IoT sensors in sustainable agriculture and vertical farming. It is quite clear that such sensing systems hold the potential to revolutionize the entire agriculture sector - should the costs and ease of operation reach the benchmarks required by farmers. At ONiO, we are very much convinced that going batteryless is the way, and that the latest ultra-low-power technology embedded in will pave the way for compact, cost-effective, seamless to deploy and operate smart agriculture sensors and true wireless systems. Besides, we also believe that such sensors - made cheap and easy to use - will find applications beyond typical agricultural operations, for instance, within the sphere of smart, green cities and even smart homes. 

The importance of urban green spaces

Green spaces are a very important part of urban environments. These include diverse spaces of various typologies and sizes - parks, trees, lawns, cemeteries, urban farming and community gardens, sport fields, residential gardens, street planters, green roofs and walls, etc. They provide valued functions for the cities and communities - from leisure, recreation, sports, contact to nature, playgrounds and educational opportunities for children, etc. Hence, preservation and expansion of park areas, as well as deployment of new initiatives such as urban farming or gardening, are very likely to receive strong public support. As an example, a research study has shown that during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns, the use of green spaces in Oslo increased very steeply, emphasizing their importance to the citizens. The importance of inner-city small green spaces is also highlighted as having a particularly strong impact on the level of physical activity among children, the elderly, and other persons with reduced mobility. There is also a strong case for supporting the expansion of urban farming, particularly given the spread of “greener cities” initiatives. Ultimately, urban farming can impact positively on public health and well-being, sustainability of food production, as well as resilience against climate change.

Public and private owners/managers of urban green spaces face some challenges in common with farmers. In essence, it boils down to keeping the plants in shape with the minimum input of resources (water, fertilizers, pesticides, energy, and labour), with the highest cost-efficiency and while preserving the environment. Sounds like a walk in the park? Well, there might be a few bumps in the road…

Market gap

Truth be told, the math towards balancing the needs of the plants with the use of water and chemicals is not an easy one to nail. Years of experience and empirical knowledge certainly help gardeners is that respect but, at the end of the day, inputs are most often used in excess without tangible benefits and rather causing harm. Indeed, the maintenance of urban green spaces is known and documented to have sizeable impacts in the environment - from intensive consumption of resources like water and energy to derived greenhouse gas effects impacts. And here’s where IoT sensors kick in! In an ideal world, gardeners can spread simple sensor devices over their plots, get them connected to a web service and start collecting data! The sensors can easily provide real-time data on soil humidity, light levels, amount of key nutrients in the soil, etc. Eventually, advanced systems and processing of data e.g. with AI tools, will allow to monitor and predict local weather, air and water quality, risk of pests/insects, pollutants in soil, etc. Actionable insights (warnings/ recommendations) can be delivered to gardeners in real-time and in a convenient manner (e.g. via smartphone) - preventing flaws and unpleasant surprises!

Looking at the blossoming ag-tech and green-tech sectors, one might think it’s only a matter of time before a handful of neat solutions emerge in this market space. Indeed, there’s a good assortment of products and services - ranging from high-end systems for professionals to quite simple consumer products. But it turns out that it is not that easy to land on a sweet spot with respect to user needs and system cost! Examples of companies offering high-end solutions for agriculture professionals include CropX, Libelium, Monnit, Pycno, Sensoterra, Sentek or Soil Scout. These offer bulky sensor units, often with some kind of wiring between the sensor unit placed in the soil and an electronic casing or a base station, and either connected to the main power grid or using large batteries. There are a couple of solar-powered versions, but they use quite large panels combined with rechargeable batteries. Besides convenience, the prime problem is cost! The price of each sensor unit starts at $150 for the cheapest solutions and go up to well over $1000. On top of this, there are significant costs related to communication hardware, with gateways/hubs/base stations starting at $500 and up to $1500+. In many cases, you need to add up monthly/annual subscription fees to cover cellular connectivity, data/software services, etc. Cost is definitely perceived as the main barrier to a wider roll-out of smart systems in agriculture. An experienced horticulture farmer in our close network told us that he recently purchased a system with four sensors and one base station at a cost of about 7500 Euros! He expects the system to deliver considerable value e.g., with respect to irrigation and fertilization planning and monitoring, but it certainly falls short, on the tip of the farmers’ iceberg needs… 

What the farmers want

The holy grail is a system that can capture nuances within crops and plots. Sensor units must be highly rugged, yet small and little intrusive - so that agriculture machines can run over them in the fields. Sensors must distinguish the levels of different nutrients and measure at multiple soil depths (for instance, at least two different depths to allow assessing the dynamics of how water from irrigation moves through the soil). Most importantly, a higher sensing/data density will enable a finer-grained analysis of operations - capturing local characteristics and variations among different soil types/structure, field topologies, sunlight exposure and weather conditions. This will only be possible by moving from a dozen sensors per farm into dense sensor grids (e.g. a sensor every 50 meters in open fields). In turn, such deployments will only become possible with way cheaper sensors and systems! In a nutshell, that’s what farmers want: convenience, fine grained data and lowest cost.

What else?

There’s also a market for consumer products to monitor potted plants and home gardens or lawns. These are typically simple sensors that read soil humidity, temperature and light levels - and in some cases also give an indication of nutrients, communicating through a simple interface or to a mobile device via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Some are meant for indoors, others made to stand outdoor conditions. Vendors in this segment include Ecowitt, Gardena, Netro, Scotts Gro, Tuya, Verdmo or Xiaomi - and prices are within $20 to $100. But all of these use batteries too, and are not meant for large installations. It is possible to find online a couple of very cheap devices (e.g. from Sonkir and XLux) that apparently need no batteries - but data must be read in the device itself and there’s no connectivity of any kind.

So, there are high-end platforms tailored to farmers - which are complex and extremely expensive - and low-end consumer products for home use. None of these are meant for mid-sized deployments as needed by gardeners and managers of urban green spaces. 

Our projects

We are confident that ONiO’s technology provides the ideal ground for the development of self-powered, wirelessly connected and cost-effective sensor systems. These will enable seamless and very cost effective precision agriculture solutions across segments - from home-use to urban gardeners and to agriculture professionals. With the support from the Regional Funds in Oslo (RFF Oslo), we are currently implementing an initial innovation project that aims at developing smart agriculture sensors for monitoring soil properties. We intend to test the sensors in urban green spaces first - in collaboration with municipal agencies and/or urban farmers. The plan is to further expand the project - tailoring sensor systems for the requirements of precision agriculture deployments in large farming operations.

The systematic use of this type of tools is expected to lead to significant savings in the use of water and energy (optimal irrigation and plant/soil maintenance), as well as an optimal (minimal) use of fertilizers and pesticides. Let’s look at water use in urban green spaces as an example. There are indications that water losses due to over-irrigation in urban green spaces can be halved through the adoption of smart irrigation systems in simple forms, i.e. even without direct and continuous measurements of local soil moisture. Moreover, such systems, when considering data on local weather conditions, can improve the irrigation efficiency by at least 20%, enabling good irrigation efficiency coefficients (≥80%) - as reported in recent publications. We believe that the advanced systems proposed by ONiO will allow another leap forward in water use efficiency - enabling cities to save great amounts of precious water resources. 

This ties perfectly with growing concerns about water use in many cities across the globe. As a close example, in the past few years, the municipality of Oslo has been releasing periodic warnings and restrictions, urging the citizens to save water due to expected shortages. It is not difficult to imagine that the problem is way worse in other geographies - namely, areas of low rainfall, and arid and semi-arid regions. For instance, large parts of Portugal and Spain have been facing consecutive periods of severe drought - not much different to other areas in Southern Europe. The problem is wide-reaching and only growing with the impacts of global warming. This means that countries and communities need to implement changes to save water and build a stronger resilience to climate change. In many cities, this means expanding parks and other green areas - which help mitigate and cope, for instance, with more frequent heat waves - while spending way less water on their maintenance. Batteryless IoT tech is here to help!

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