With about 40 percent of the world’s food produced using irrigation, it’s a major factor in food security. Amid concerns about water availability for agriculture, making the most of every drop is increasingly critical.
UNL computer engineer Mehmet Can Vuran developed technology to help farmers boost yields and conserve water, with support from a National Science Foundation CAREER award. Now, an NSF initiative to guide promising discoveries toward commercialization is helping him turn his underground wireless sensor network into a practical irrigation management tool.
“We’re always interested in the research side of the story, but you have to think about the business side,” he said. “One of the major questions when you’re commercializing is what is this product going to be.”
Vuran’s team set out to answer that question with a $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps award. After attending training for award recipients, the team traveled throughout Nebraska, talking to farmers, irrigation company representatives, water resources managers and others to understand how best to develop and market the technology.
In addition to Vuran, the team includes entrepreneurial lead, doctoral student Xin Dong; project mentor Stephen Reichenbach, a computer scientist and successful entrepreneur; and team adviser Suat Irmak, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor of Biological Systems Engineering who heads the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network.
Underground wireless sensor networks use sensors buried in soil to gather information about soil moisture, temperature and changing conditions. Information is sent wirelessly to a center pivot irrigation system or a base station, providing accurate, real-time data to help farmers determine when and how much to irrigate.
To further develop the product, Vuran founded Wildsense LLC, which has a licensing agreement with NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit corporation responsible for commercializing UNL research. Wildsense received an NSF Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grant to continue developing and marketing the sensor network.
“We’re always interested in the research side of the story, but you have to think about the business side. One of the major questions when you’re commercializing is what is this product going to be.”
– Mehmet Can Vuran
The technology is being demonstrated on farms throughout Nebraska. Vuran said he expects a product to be ready within two years.
Making the technology so low cost that farmers in developing countries can benefit is the eventual goal.