SitS NSF-UKRI: Wireless In-Situ Soil Sensing Network for Future Sustainable Agriculture

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


This research proposes a paradigm shift in low-cost, long-life, wireless in-situ sensing networks for the study of soil health and future sustainable agriculture. The sensing network will be enabled through wireless powering by autonomous ground and aerial vehicles. This approach will result in much lower cost underground sensors with no need for battery replacement, thus enabling data collection on far higher spatial and temporal densities than is now possible. The novel sensing network will be demonstrated in a study on the effect of irrigation with alternative water sources. With the world's population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, increasing food production threatens soil security, presenting one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. Sustaining high levels of food production depends on irrigated agriculture, which consumes over 70% of freshwater reserves in many regions of the world. Due to the diminishing freshwater sources, alternative water sources, for example reclaimed water, surface water, and coastal water, have been considered and used for agriculture. However, alternative water sources contain contaminants of emerging concern and/or excess nutrients and salt contents. Their impact on soil health and related contaminant effects on the soil ecosystem and productivity remain largely unknown. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop soil sensing technologies that can effectively indicate the health condition of soils being irrigated using different alternative water resources. The prototype system developed in this project will be demonstrated in such a study, investigating effect of irrigation with alternative water sources. The research results will not only be critical for developing better soil maintenance, protection, and management practice, but also for enabling a wide range of research on soil health and associated links to sustainable agriculture.

The research team plans to achieve the proposed objectives through the following tasks. (1) Develop low-power, low-cost, underground, in-situ soil sensor modules and achieve a reduction in power and cost by one to two orders of magnitude compared to commercial products. Low-power electronics in both discrete and ASIC forms will be designed and fitted to existing sensor probe technology. (2) Develop wireless power transfer and data telemetry systems that can wirelessly transfer power from a source above the ground to an underground sensor module, charging a rechargeable battery or enabling a battery-less underground sensing operation. This approach can greatly simplify the system installation and maintenance. (3) Demonstrate the proposed system operation from a controlled laboratory environment and open field testing. Sensor modules calibration and stability will be investigated to ensure long-term reliable operation. (4) Deploy the wireless sensor technology to investigate irrigation effect on soil health by using alternative water sources. Soil moisture, temperature, and salinity will be measured in-situ and collected wirelessly. Soil pH, ammonia, organic carbon and nitrogen will be measured from collected soil samples. These parameters can indicate soil intrinsic conditions due to different irrigation practices. The research will carry an important impact of soil health to address global food security and sustainable agriculture.

Planned Impact

The proposed sensing network and study could enable far more efficient use of fresh water resources in irrigated agriculture. Furthermore, the proposed sensing paradigm could be applied to a wide range of soil health studies with direct societal impact by helping improve soil conditions and agricultural productivity. The project brings together several different disciplines to solve an important problem and will, therefore, train a multidisciplinary cohort of graduate and undergraduate students in a convergent manner. Students will interact with faculty in microbiology, soil science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Undergraduate students will be incorporated into the project through integration with an entrepreneurially focused senior design program. Middle and high school students will be engaged through participation in science competitions. The team will engage stakeholders early on in the research to ensure that research efforts are grounded in the real practical needs of end users. Research results will be shared with stakeholders through educational programs organized through Utah State University Extension. Finally, research results will be shared at a national meeting of Extension professionals and through the development of online resources.
Description Please refer to the Imperial College submission.

The wider team has so far accomplished:
1. Wireless power supply to sensors through soil.
2. High accuracy control of drones/robots to capture data and maintain sensors.
3. Reverse engineering to develop lower power sensors.

Technology should be ready for rigorous testing in spring 2021 when the University of Aberdeen postdoc commences.
Exploitation Route Sensors will eventually be used in other projects exploring environmental processes.

We plan to construct low power sensors that can be charged through soil and are low cost. This provides technology that will be useful to sensor manufacturers.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Environment,Transport

Description Our contribution to the project was robust testing of novel wireless soil sensors, involving a broad range of soils and environmental conditions. We demonstrated the efficacy of the new technologies developed by the Imperial College and University of Utah teams. From the dissemination of this research we have attracted interest from industry. Our testing approaches are now being used to assess new soil sensors developed by Delta-T Devices, providing them with independent evidence to support sensor improvement and deployment by industry. The engineering partners on the project developed the first ever system to wirelessly charge and collected data from buried soil sensors. They also produced a sensor to measure soil water content that required far low power input than commercial sensors. Couple with this was a. autonomous data collection and charging system based on drones and robots. The technology is published and available for industry to exploit. This has already attracted interest from commercial companies.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Electronics,Environment
Impact Types Economic

Description (TRAMPAS) - Transport, retention, and release of synthesized DNAs through microplastics affected-soils: mimicking bacteria behavior with regards to climate change and global warming
Amount € 224,934 (EUR)
Funding ID 101026287 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 10/2021 
End 09/2023
Description Sensor testing
Amount £9,800 (GBP)
Organisation Delta T Devices Ltd 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2023 
End 06/2023
Title Calibration of new sensors 
Description Low cost and low power soil moisture sensors are being calibrated in a diverse array of conditions. This supports the development of this technology by the University of Utah. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Ongoing. This is part of broader sensor technology. We will update this as the project proceeds. 
Description Encyclopedia of Soils and the Environment 
Organisation Desert Research Institute
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Co-Editing Soil Physics section of Encyclopaedia. This has about 80 entries, including - Soil Sensors Critical Zone Science Root-Soil Interactions Erosion Water Harvesting Soil Structure
Collaborator Contribution Paul Hallett and Dani Or (DRI) are working together as the Section Editors.
Impact Encylopedia 2nd edition to be published in 2022.
Start Year 2020
Description Hydronations PhD student 
Organisation James Hutton Institute
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Co-supervisor of PhD project funded by the Scottish Government. Project is exploring Temporary Storage Areas to improve water capture and decrease flood risk in the environment.
Collaborator Contribution Provision of sensors that are being tested to assist with hydrological modelling by the PhD student.
Impact Field sites currently being established. Some of these will be useful for SITS deployment of sensors.
Start Year 2020
Description Libyan Government - PhD project - Constraining soil physical conditions for root growth and nutrient capture 
Organisation Government of Libya
Country Libya 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A range of physical constraints to root growth will be explored. This includes direct impacts from soil structure and indirect impacts from sodicity and salinity. To enable monitoring of plant growth experiments, sensors will be deployed. One chapter will explore sensor constraints due to salinity, exploring direct impacts to the electrical signal (dielectric constant), soil structure changes and gap formation between probes and soil.
Collaborator Contribution The PhD student is working with sensors, providing complementary data that is in addition to the objectives of the SiTS project.
Impact Only recently commenced.
Start Year 2021
Description NERC SUPER CDT PhD student - Water quality risks from soil structure degradation in Scotland 
Organisation University of the Highlands and Islands
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution PhD project exploring how soil structure changes by management affect hydrological processes. Sensors will be deployed in field experiments. The research will encompass field-based measurements of soil and water physical and chemical properties, and laboratory column studies where soil structural degradation can be manipulated and hydrochemical processes measured accurately. The following objectives will be addressed: 1. To use rapid visual assays of soil structural degradation to assess its occurrence across selected catchments in Scotland, broadening previous surveys to include the highlands and organic soils. 2. To obtain quantitative measurements of soil physical and hydrochemical properties at field scale between degraded and less degraded areas. 3. To measure impacts of soil structural degradation on catchment water quality. 4. To explore how rapid stresses, such as physical disruption by tillage or rapid rewetting of dry soil, influence hydrochemical processes. The studentship offers training in both field and laboratory approaches, provided by a multidisciplinary supervisory team in soil physics and hydrochemistry.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise on sensors and use of new technologies. Potential use of sites for field deployment of NERC/NSF sensors.
Impact Commences October 2022.
Start Year 2022
Description International Soil Modelling Consortium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Soil structure as biological habitat is one of the themes of this ISMC Working Group, and will form the topic of our first webinar. We attracted a broad range of researchers, extending the reach of the ISMC to soil microbiologists and ecologists.

Soil structure forms the habitat of soil organisms and, thus, it is an obvious assumption that soil structure forms variably connected pore spaces and separated niches (i.e. habitats) that are of critical importance for the diversity of soil biota. This affects not only the genetic diversity of individual species, but more importantly the functional diversity within biological communities. Soil biology may also drive soil structure, possibly building favourable properties. The quantitative description of these interactions is weak, but a huge potential exists to learn more by exploiting new technologies and modelling.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Microbiology Society - Soil Health Case Study 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paul Hallett participated in a focus group exploring the role of soil microbiology in soil science research. In this he emphasised the need for interdisciplinary science deploying the latest technologies.

He wrote a case study intended to guide future funding initiatives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020