Leveraging IoT to improve water efficiency in agriculture

by Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan, Swetha Kolluri, Rozita Singh, Sridhar Krishnamurthi

January 15, 2021





Indian farmers continue to be haunted by the same irrigation challenges, every year. Even now, the fate of the country’s agriculture continues to be dominated by floods and droughts, from season to season. Furthermore, the changing weather patterns have made rainfall more erratic, from untimely downpours to a sparse monsoon.

The abuse and misuse of groundwater continues at alarming rates, which, in turn, is leading to water-table depletion at the rate of 0.3 m per year. Also, India is able to leverage only 37% of surface water provided by rivers. Worse, the fast-disappearing rain-fed waterbodies across rural and urban spaces have pushed the country to the brink of a water scarcity crisis.

Agricultural Irrigation Amid Water Scarcity Crisis

A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and FICCI 2020 states that “In India, 90% of all freshwater withdrawal is used by the agriculture sector alone”. Even though irrigation systems have expanded considerably over the decades, about 60% of crops produced in India continue to be rain-fed and are, therefore, entirely dependent on monsoons. The great Indian monsoon, spread over the four months of June to September, supplies 70% of the total rainfall in a year. Consequently, weather disturbances have a direct impact on the food and water security of a large chunk of the population.

Water misuse and related behavioural challenges compound the problem. The human community still does not appreciate the value of preserving and optimising water use unless there is a shortage. This is worsened by the fact that people are getting access to fresh water extracted from deep aquifers almost free of cost, while not worrying about how these aquifers will be recharged or how this process of extraction could be done in a sustainable way.

Leveraging IoT-based Innovation for Water Efficient Irrigation

To explore innovative solutions to mitigate the crisis, UNDP Accelerator Lab India conducted an experiment to see the viability and outcome of an Internet of Things (IoT)-based irrigation system. IoT is one of the most exciting and transformative technologies of the 21st Century that is built on the idea of leveraging networks. The premise is that interrelated tangible devices can perform tasks that standalone systems cannot do.   

In this case, our interrelated device system is armed with sensors, software, and other technologies, which collect and exchange data without human or computer intervention. Once transmitted, the data is stored and analysed on Cloud or locally. The IoT devices are also empowered to perform certain tasks as per actionable intelligence received from people or other systems.

The IoT-based system was aimed to analyse soil and weather conditions, transpiration and water needs of crops, and relay it back to the farmer. The system did this along with intelligent actionable insights. The project was envisaged to optimise the use of inputs like water, timely irrigation, and collect sufficient information about the weather to help farmers take informed decisions.

What All Went into the Experiment?

The UNDP Accelerator Lab India conducted the experiment in partnership with Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC (DISYS), a global IT firm with expertise on various ICT applications, including IoT.  The experiment was rolled out in a farm in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu between June and August 2020 to demonstrate how modern technology can work alongside traditional practices in improving overall productivity.

The project was implemented in a 5-acre plot, which was subdivided into smaller plots of about 30 to 40 cents and divided into 14 parcels. Each parcel was tested for soil nutrient parameters. This data was collected to ensure that differences in yield could be assessed based on soil nutrient levels and intervention required, if any, to get a uniform crop.

To ensure that the crop control was maintained, two out of the 14 lots were identified for traditional management methods to understand the key inputs from technology that would make a difference to the overall expected output. The Vamban 8 variety of the popular food grain crop black gram was chosen as it normally has a cultivation period of 70 to 80 days from seeding, and has a ready market.

After preparing the field for cultivation, the seeds were broadcasted at a rate of 8 kg per acre. A set of sensors were deployed, such as a weather station, multiple soil moisture indicators, automated water management system including automated solenoid valves, and water flow meters. These were linked to a central system that requires inputs from the sensor to trigger actions based on sensor thresholds.



How Successful Was the Experiment?

There were clear benefits in terms of crop health, size, grain weight, pod formation, maturity and volume. The IoT systems’ microclimate data also provided forewarnings for potential rains, and the soil moisture detectors provided data on evapotranspiration and moisture levels at different lengths, all in real time. The organisation is planning to test the system around more crops, following a four-year seasonal cycle.

Farmers largely rely on advisories from agricultural universities, which are often broad predictions and projections. The IoT-based systems could provide real-time information with respect to soil types, provide localised weather forecasts, and estimate water loss owing to evaporation — all of which are critical elements in figuring out how much water is actually needed for irrigating a particular crop in a particular soil type, and   curtailing water wastage and misuse.

Challenges to Technology Adoption

Given the vast landscape and wide range of agro-climatic zones in India, the technology needs to be tested at various locations to make it stronger. There were certain challenges identified regarding mass-scale adoption of the technology.

For one, rural India has poor internet connectivity and accessibility across difficult terrains.  In addition, there is another problem of protecting devices and infrastructure (sensors, etc) from external factors, such as natural disasters, direct solar exposure, and grazing animals. Sensors may not be able to communicate seamlessly with the base station owing to factors like distance and terrain.

Designing technology to communicate with farmers in local dialects or languages is another major challenge. This could be addressed by employing the use of easy-to-comprehend audio-visual output like colour-coding, icons, symbols, and similar methods to communicate specific actions required.

Last but not the least, the cost of the technology is a challenge when we consider small and marginal farm owners. There is a need to build a structure where multiple probe systems can be pooled in from across villages, thereby bringing costs down and ensuring economies of scale.  

Potential to be a Game Changer

As India transitions to 5G, the IoT driven technology can be a game changer. These systems need to be connected to a local network that farmers can easily access through their smartphones for the required feedback, rather than having to rely on internet connectivity in their respective state or region.

While large-scale farmers can deploy the full-fledged system, for small farmers, a quick detailing on soil moisture can be conducted through an autonomous single device system, which provides the requisite information to optimize their water usage efficiently.

There is no doubt about the viability of the technology, once algorithms are developed for cultivating different types of crops and usage metrics are simplified.  

A scalable autonomous system is the need of the hour and the more data gets collected, the more the possibility to prepare standard packages for different crops, cultivated in different geographies with dissimilar climatic conditions all year round.  

The writers are:

Dr. Krishnan S Raghavan, Head of Exploration, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Swetha Kolluri, Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Rozita Singh, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Lab UNDP India

Sridhar Krishnamurthi (Information Security Professional and Rookie farmer assist in improving farming practices)