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Autonomous drones could make irrigation more water efficient

Drones equipped with microwave sensing technology could help farmers improve their irrigation practices and reduce water use.

A team of engineers from Monash University, led by Professor Jeff Walker, has spent the past two years developing an autonomous soil moisture mapping system for irrigated paddocks.

They tested the proof-of-concept using optical mapping, which can determine soil moisture levels in the near surface. Research is now being conducted using drones equipped with passive L band microwaves, with future trials planed for P band waves. These are expected to be able to measure up to 15 cm into the soil, unimpeded by vegetation and tillage.

Once the user has marked which paddock they want to measure and pressed the fly button, the drone will take off, scan the area and land on its own.

The data collected by the drone can then be used to produce a map of soil moisture levels down to the metre, which will help farmers decide how best to irrigate a paddock.

As much of Australia continues to suffer from drought and below-average rainfall, Walker said “precision agriculture” methods are becoming increasingly important.

The data collected by the drones can be used to produce a map of soil moisture levels.

“By 2050, we will need to produce 60% more food than today with the same amount of land and water, and we can only achieve this by being more efficient with the water we use through irrigation,” he said.

“We need to know how much the crop needs [and] how much moisture is already there, and apply just the right amounts of water in the correct places to avoid wastage while keeping the crop at its peak growth.”

He said farmers have a responsibility to adopt smarter water management practices.

“Farmers need to cooperate; water conservation is a collective responsibility. Everyone needs to do their part to use water more effectively or we’re at risk of running out completely,” Walker said.

“As the world’s driest continent, facing climate change, a growing population and a greater demand for food, water conservation should be one of Australia’s top priorities.”

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