Letter to the Editor

Emergent technologies can improve irrigation efficiency

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

With all the technological advances of the last decade irrigation systems have seen their share of improvements and several new technologies are emerging that can help increase the efficiency of your irrigation and make the energy you expend to apply water more effective.

The first and foremost is high intensity irrigation water management technology. This generally consists of installing a solar powered soil moisture meter with a telemetry unit in the most limiting soil under a pivot. Several companies provide this technology with varying levels of service and information. Typically, the information you will receive consists of online access through the company's website to a graph indicating the water content at various levels in the soil profile recorded every thirty minutes to an hour over the entire day. Some companies go as far as overlaying a target area on the graph suggesting a water level range to focus on. This gives a visual reference to the abstract concept of evapotranspiration and adds an element of strategy and convenience.

The current cutting edge of technology consists of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Although current regulations limit the commercial use of this technology, it is readily available to agricultural producers from several companies that provide various levels of support and service. Depending on the flight controller software, conducting a flight can be as simple as drawing a box on a computer map or as complex as remotely controlling the UAV during flight. A variety of cameras can be fitted to a UAV including the standard digital camera, infrared, and thermal imaging cameras. These cameras can provide near real-time aerial imagery of the field from a perspective that used to take months of processing to receive from a vendor. In addition to an aerial photograph provided by a standard digital camera, the more advanced infrared and thermal imaging cameras can identify stressed areas, as well as determine the uniformity of water application and identify issues with individual nozzles. This technology is still developing and covers a wide range of pricing depending on factors like image resolution and flight time, so diligent research would be recommended prior to a purchase.

The third technology that is developing is high resolution variable rate center pivots. While most current variable rate technologies divide a pivot into pie shaped sections to apply different amounts of water, high resolution further refines the pie shaped sector into smaller, more rectangular areas by providing the ability to control individual nozzles. The increased control has the ability to account for varying crops, topography, soils, and obstacles under the pivot and ensure that the application rate is uniform and consistent with the crops needs. Multiple vendors currently have this technology available.

All of these technologies are currently available, but an evaluation of price versus convenience versus functionality needs to be made to determine what might fit into your operation. Emergent technologies tend to mature at a fast rate the options and abilities will continue to grow with the industry.

-- Lamken takes online classes from Chadron State College, where he is a senior.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: