New technology to improve environmental performance

Water use

Irrigation provides significant economic benefit to farmers and New Zealand as a whole, but it also comes with challenges.

The area of irrigated agriculture across New Zealand has doubled in the past 15 years, and now produces nearly 20% of New Zealand’s agricultural gross domestic product. However, farmers are under increasing pressure about how they manage the freshwater resource and to lessen their environmental impact.

With this in mind, AgResearch scientists have developed a potentially transformative new concept called Surface Water Assessment and Mitigation for Irrigation (SWAMI). It is an MBIE Smart Idea that could help farmers reduce the risk of contaminants such as phosphorus, microbes and sediment being carried into lakes, rivers and streams.

Our scientists, working with the University of Auckland, have shown that by bouncing acoustic signals off the soil surface, they can detect ponding where the water application is greater than the capacity of the soil to absorb irrigation water.

The aim is to feed back the information to the irrigation system in real time so that it can adjust for those areas to avoid causing excess surface water that carries the contaminants into lakes, rivers and streams.

Another potential application of the concept is where farmers are spreading effluent on their land to increase pasture production and reduce fertiliser costs. As with the irrigation, an effluent spreader could be fed information in real time to adjust for effluent ponding on the soil surface that can cause damage.

The research has a full patent application. The next step is a commercial partnership to develop the concept into a technology that can be incorporated with existing irrigation systems that farmers can use.

Directional coded sound waves are emitted from sensors mounted on the irrigation system, to propagate through the pasture or crop cover, before being reflected by the soil surface. As free water develops on the soil surface and the surface becomes smoother, the reflected sound becomes sufficiently less diffuse so that it can be sensed by directional microphones. The signal is then processed to provide a real-time control mechanism for the irrigation system.
Environmental Science
Bridge Hub Water Challenge Winners

The SWAMI project won the New Zealand Research stream of the Bridge Hub 2020 Water Challenge, receiving a both a cash prize and investment into the commercial outcome.

This project is led by AgResearch scientists Chandra Ghimire and Val Snow, Vikki Yeoman (AgResearch Commercialisation team), and Professor Stuart Bradley from Inverse Acoustics Ltd. 

The Bridge Hub Water Challenge is an Australian, New Zealand and Israeli challenge that aims to identify researchers and entrepreneurs who have solutions that can change the status quo of water within society. 

As one of the finalists, the project team participated in a series of four commercialisation virtual workshops designed to enhance the commercialisation opportunity. These workshops covered topics including market research, ten different types of innovation, IP strategy and protection, and creating a research canvas and the final pitch. 

Vikki says, “There were over a hundred applications to the Water Challenge so this initiative has done very, very well.”

Judging was by a panel consisting of industry members and water experts. The criteria that solutions are assessed against are focused on the scale of impact that the solution would have to the global agriculture and society. 

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