October 31, 2023
MIT researchers have developed a new suite of precision agriculture tools to automate irrigation processes, improving efficiencies and reducing water waste in typically water-stressed regions.
The tools are being tested in pilot projects in Kenya, Morocco and Jordan.
The team, from MIT’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, is testing solutions including an optimization model that analyzes data on local weather and crop health, and a precision irrigation controller that optimizes energy and water use.
The controller takes data on factors such as humidity, temperature and wind speed and uses AI to analyze it to create predictions on an area’s solar exposure, and the anticipated amount of water required for the day.
This information is then sent to the farmer’s smartphone, telling them when to turn the drip irrigation system on and off according to crop needs and weather patterns.
Together, these technologies automate the drip irrigation process, which releases water and nutrients in controlled volumes in response to when it’s needed.
The team developed the technologies following several “field days.” where they spoke to more than 200 farmers from Kenya, Morocco and Jordan, sites selected due to their high solar exposure and ongoing struggles with water availability.
A key necessity for the tech was that it was made as affordable and accessible as possible, to help small-scale farmers more rapidly adopt mechanized agricultural processes.
“Many of the poor around the world are small, subsistence farmers,” said Susan Amrose, GEAR Lab research scientist. “With intensification of food production needs, worsening soil, water scarcity and smaller plots, these farmers can’t continue with their current practices.”
“We didn’t just create technology in isolation – we also advanced our understanding of how people would interact with and value this technology, and we did that before the technology had come to fruition,” said Amos Winter, MIT GEAR Lab principal investigator. “Getting affirmations that farmers would value what the technology would do before we finished it was incredibly important.”
At the Moroccan test site, GEAR Lab’s technology reduced water consumption by 44%, and energy by 38% when compared to a neighboring farm using traditional drip irrigation practice.
A test farm piloting a solar-powered drip system is currently in operation in Jordan, while in Kenya, where the team says precision agriculture and smart irrigation are less popular, a simpler version of the controller is being showcased for education and training purposes.
The team said it is examining the efficacy of and response to the system to inform future designs.
“I don’t know a thing about what it’s like to live every day as a farmer in Jordan or Morocco,” said Winter. “I don’t know what clogs the filters, or who shuts off the water. If you can see the world through the eyes of stakeholders, you’re going to spot requirements and constraints that you wouldn’t have picked up on otherwise.
“To be in a position where we can … produce something of tremendous value and efficacy is incredible. Solving the right problem at the right time, on a massive scale, is thrilling.”
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