Rapid non-invasive imaging of soil moisture content - applications in plant breeding and farmer-based soil management for improved crop yields

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Sustainable Soils and Grassland Systems


Abstracts are not currently available in GtR for all funded research. This is normally because the abstract was not required at the time of proposal submission, but may be because it included sensitive information such as personal details.


10 25 50
Description Of all the available technologies EMI shows the greatest potential to provide a tool for breeders to phenotype root activity with respect to water uptake. Whalley et al. (2017) compare ERT, EMI, penetrometer measurements with direct measurements of soil water content with a neutron probe. In project BB/J01950X/1, we have shown that EMI has the potential to be used to compare soil drying with depth in large numbers of plots. Furthermore, we have obtained proof-of-concept data of the application if EMI in AHDB trail managed by KWS.

The primary and secondary research, in path finder project BB/P004687/1, has identified a clear opportunity for this technology as a tool for plant breeders. At the same time, it has also clearly identified that there is a more limited opportunity for the technology more generally as an in-field management tool for farmers. The latter is because Electromagnetic inductance (EMI) has been used for a long time in surveys of soil moisture, texture, salinity, compaction and cation exchange capacity. Although these surveys are based on empirical comparisons between raw EMI data and field observations. Companies already provide EMI-based soil characterization and predictive yield maps as a service (e.g. Agri Optics in New Zealand and Cropnuts in Kenya). These companies and others offering such services globally (e.g. USDA in the US) use commercially available EMI meters. In order to enter the general precision agriculture market, the team (Rothamsted and Lancaster) would need to either be looking to (1) integrate their EMI approach with other sensor data to develop novel root and shoot growth modelling algorithms (2) be developing EMI meters that are a fraction of the cost of current commercial meters or (3) persuade the farming community of the value of the more robust relationships between electrical conductivity and depth that will arise from the application of the approaches developed in project BBSRC BB/J01950X/1. With respect to the third point it is important to appreciate that the unique contribution of the team in establishing how EMI can be used to determine the relationship between electrical conductivity and depth (Shanahan et al. 2015; Whalley et al. 2017), rather than the current commercial practice of making empirical associates between un-processed raw EMI data. With our approach we have demonstrated, for the first time, how EMI measurements can be used to infer soil drying patterns with depth.

With proof of concept data generated through a BBSRC Follow on Fund the team would then be in a position to progress discussions with plant breeding companies. These data would also provide evidence to justify work with an EMI manufacturing company to; (1) adapt existing hardware to be used on the back of a tractor and (2) implement the more robust analytical approach developed by the team to determine how electrical conductivity varies with depth. The first point would allow the data collection to be more automated rather than relying on a manual method. This would in turn reduce the cost to plant breeders in generating the data and/or allow them to use the technique on many more breeding plots per year. Adaption of the hardware is not considered a difficult technical challenge but would require investment, which could only be justified once the further proof of concept data for the underlying technique is generated. The proposed follow-on project will focus on demonstrating the utility of using EMI to monitor changes in soil water content with depth, in breeding trials, using the approach that has been developed in BB/J01950X/1 and described by Whalley et al. (2017).
Exploitation Route This will be taken forward in the application for a follow on project.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Electronics,Environment

Description The findings of this project have been used to develop a follow-on project. We plan to submit this into the March 2017 round. Update: this was submitted but unfortunately it was not funded.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Electronics,Environment
Impact Types Economic