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Photo: Instrument that detects rainfall as part of an automated irrigation system.
New instruments like RainAlert, which detects rainfall and can automatically shut down irrigation systems, are based on ARS-patented technology. Photo courtesy of Smartfield, Inc.

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Company Expands ARS Technology to Save Water, Energy

By Don Comis
March 18, 2009

This year, a Texas-based company is expanding a timely automated irrigation system that saves water and energy and is based on Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-patented technology.

The system is called SmartCropTM. Plant physiologist James R. Mahan and a team of scientists at the ARS Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock, Tex., developed the technology.

The company, Smartfield, Inc., in Lubbock, Texas, is adding three instruments: SmartPump to detect pressure and flow rates in subsurface drip systems; SmartWeather to monitor wind speed and sunshine; and RainAlert to detect rain. The company began marketing SmartCropTM for the 2008 irrigation season.

SmartCropTM uses pole-mounted infrared thermometers to read leaf temperatures as well as surrounding air temperatures. A computerized controller wirelessly receives the readings every 10 seconds from each thermometer. The controller also collects weather data. Every 15 minutes, it transmits data averages to the Internet.

SmartCropTM capitalizes on the researchers' discovery that each plant species grows best only within a narrow temperature range. An overheated plant may need water as much to cool down as to assuage thirst.

For cotton in the Lubbock area, the system might send a text message advising turning on irrigation if leaf temperatures read above 82 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 6.5 hours at a time.

Listening to plants via cell phone has saved cotton, sorghum and wheat grower Glen Schur of Plainview, Texas, about 7 million gallons of irrigation water a year on average, according to his reports. That saves Schur $4,000 a year in energy costs alone.

The water saved would be the equivalent of the total water needs of 44 homes for a year.

Spread across just the center pivot and drip irrigation systems in the country, the water saved would fill the needs of about 10 million homes a year, and energy saved would power about a million homes.

ARS and Smartfield continue working with Schur and other farmers, both to refine SmartCropTM further and to inspire research into new ways to address this century's water, energy and climate challenges.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.