Smartphone apps help manage irrigation systems

05/07/2013 03:21:00 PM
Renee Stern

irrigation smartphone appGrowers soon may carry around more decision-making tools in their pockets—all loaded onto their smartphones.

An app designed to manage irrigation systems will go into beta testing this spring with citrus growers and later this year with strawberry growers. Built by University of Florida researchers with funding from the U.S. Agriculture Department, the tools will be available in versions for both iPhone and Android-based systems.

Once released, the apps will be available through Google Play and Apple stores at no cost. That may change after the USDA development grant runs out, says Clyde Fraisse, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the university's Gainesville campus.

Supporting information for the apps will be available at the Florida Automated Weather Network ( and AgroClimate ( websites.

"We're trying to translate weather and climate information into something useful for producers," Fraisse says.

Going mobile

Fraisse developed the strawberry irrigation app, as well as Web-based climate information systems for growers. So far, he's seen nothing else comparable for mobile applications.

Kelly Morgan, associate professor of soil and water science at the university's Southwest Florida research lab in Immokalee, expects his app for citrus growers to be ready for use this May.

"There's great interest, especially in citrus, for irrigation scheduling," he says. The smartphone app builds on an earlier PC-focused tool available on FAWN, untethers it for greater mobility and flexibility, and simplifies it to a one-button access.

"I see it as the first in a system of tools to help growers," Morgan says. Other possibilities include fertilizer calculators and guides for insect and disease control.

The USDA grant covered development costs for four crops: strawberries, citrus, cotton and turfgrass.

Growing smarter with strawberries

The strawberry irrigation app focuses only on drip irrigation systems paired with plastic mulch, Fraisse says.

Users set up parameters once for a field, including row spacing, irrigation system output and efficiency, and planting and estimated harvest dates. That information is stored under the user's registration for future use, allowing for a quick check of the latest irrigation recommendations every time the app is accessed.

The app combines field and system information with data from the nearest FAWN weather station to calculate evapotranspiration and the crop's water needs. From there, the tool provides the recommended hours of irrigation needed, Fraisse says.

Growers have been relying on educated guesses based on visual cues, past experience and perhaps tools such as soil-moisture sensors. "I suspect in the beginning of the season (many) over-irrigate," he says.

For now, irrigation isn't a major cost for strawberry growers.

But that may change, given changing weather patterns and growing competition for water. "We're going to have to get more serious about water in this state," Morgan says.

Making irrigation management more efficient also provides cost benefits, he says. Some growers have switched over to automated systems that are run from a computer screen, but far more drive from one citrus grove to another to start pumps manually.

There’s an app for citrus, too

The citrus app also takes into account how much water a grower's irrigation system puts out—combined with tree age, row and tree spacing, weather conditions and similar factors—to calculate the needed running time.

One of the main challenges to building the smart irrigation tools was reducing their scope to only the most necessary and useful data. "A phone screen can't accommodate too much," Fraisse says.

Keep it simple and don't overwhelm users were guiding principles, he says.

Topping the list, however, is involving growers during development and testing to determine exactly what features they need and how they'll use the apps, he says.

One-button access will make the irrigation app a useful tool, says Barry Daniels, citrus production manager for Heller Bros. Packing Corp. in Winter Garden. Just as growers now check the weather forecast when they wake up, they'll also be able to get a look at the day's irrigation recommendations.

Making features as customizable as possible also is important. "Tree spacing is variable and affects irrigation scheduling and patterns," he says.

Daniels now uses FAWN's online recommendations as a base, adjusting them to take into account his own experiences with the company's groves and soil types.

"It works well except in the spring when it's dry," he says. Chris Neuhofer, irrigation supervisor for Orange-Co in Arcadia, says he and his company are intent on "using the tools that technology offers to manage resources in the best way possible."

Currently Orange-Co relies on soil-moisture sensors placed throughout the company's groves to schedule irrigation runs.

Neuhofer also is working with Morgan on a comparison study of the company's site-specific irrigation program and FAWN's recommendations.

"It's too early to tell how well FAWN compares," he says. But he's uncertain that the smartphone app will provide enough enhancements for the company's needs.

"For smaller operations I could see it," he says. It also could provide a handy reference tool in the field for quick checks of an irrigation plan.

The researchers' wider concerns with adoption of the apps include the prevalence of smartphones among the target market, Fraisse says. Growers in some regions and crops have taken to smartphones more quickly than others. Smartphone use is spreading over time, but for now the cost of owning one may be a barrier.

But with the changeover to the new technology comes another danger, he says. Everyone must remember that smartphones and their associated apps won't solve every problem—and that not all decision-making tools are suited to mobile use.

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