Robot Tests Moisture Levels in Plants to Determine When to Water Crops

UC Riverside researchers developed an autonomous mobile robot to sample leaves and measure their water potential.

The robot is outfitted with a pressure chamber it uses to compress leaves to see how much moisture is present and then uses the data to determine when best to water crops. (📷: UC Riverside)

It can be tough to know the best time to water plants, even for farmers who tend to acres of crops while managing water supplies. To get an accurate assessment of water requirements, farmers take leaf samples and place them in pressure chambers to see when moisture will start seeping from the stems. The process is time-consuming, and growers can only tend to so many areas of a field in a day. Without that information, it's tough to determine which areas need water the most.

A group of engineers from UC Riverside are developing an autonomous robot that can monitor crop's water necessities by performing tests onsite, rather than reporting to a lab for results. The robot will be able to remain in the field and produce data over a period of time instead of providing a single snapshot of a single area. As mentioned earlier, testing leaves in a lab takes time, which can be detrimental in determining precision watering schedules. Another way is to sample leaves in the field, but the data produced is less accurate even though individuals can cover more areas.

To that end, the researchers have utilized a robot they designed a few years ago that travels along rows of crops, adjusting irrigation flows based on sensor data that tells the robot what level of moisture is needed for each area. Using RAPID (Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery) as a base, the engineers incorporated a custom robotic leaf sampler and an onboard pressure chamber. The robot will work in tandem with drones that survey the fields, then direct the robot where to travel for testing. The team hopes to produce several robots by the spring of next year, and if all goes well, will begin trials in test fields by the summer.

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