Wild summer flower Wild summer flower The new device can help areas with little water. (Photo: Pavelk/Shutterstock)

New sensor gives plants ability to 'drink' when thirsty

Israeli startup's unit efficiently manages irrigation by monitoring the water needs of crops.

Without water, life as we know it would not be able to survive. And without irrigation, the bounty of crops we enjoy on a daily basis would not be able to grow. For more than 5,000 years of recorded history, the artificial movement of water by humans to irrigate crops has contributed to both the rise - and downfall - of cities. It's also greatly expanded our ability to survive in harsh environments and pushed human populations to levels never before seen.

Unfortunately, as the human race has advanced both technologically and globally, our ability to extract water from underground aquifers and rivers has become too good. As of 2009, about 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawals worldwide have been for irrigation alone. Without more efficient management of irrigated fields, farmers - particularly those working in regions prone to droughts or arid conditions - face future declines in crop production.

One company working to help the agriculture industry better gauge the needs of its crops is Common-Sensor, Ltd. The Israeli startup has created an innovative device, called the CommonSensor, that hooks into an existing irrigation system and empowers plants to regulate both the timing and flow of water to their roots. There's a lot of technology involved behind the scenes, but this is basically how it works:

1. The CommonSensor is programmed to allow for all types of growths. Since each plant has a specific root system, the device detects the water demands that root system (or dynamic "bowl" system) will have within a given area of irrigation. 2. When a certain moisture threshold is reached within the bowl, the water sensor turns off irrigation. 3. As soon as it detects that the plants have "drunk" to a defined level, it turns the tap back on. In this sense, the device is acting on behalf of the crops to provide water when necessary, instead of just guessing.

common Photo: Common-Sensor, Ltd.

All of this adds up to substantial water savings. And unlike other "irrigation computers," the CommonSensor takes into account rainfall, avoiding excess irrigation, say the founders. Because the device prevents percolation, or runoff to the aquifer, another major benefit is preventing the contamination of drinking water with carcinogens and other contaminants found in pesticides and fertilizers.

"The real outcome is what is seen in the fields," Israel Oren, the general manager of Common-Sensor, told From the Grapevine. "We have implemented our units in various areas in Israel and Australia. The ARO found that with our units, we can save between 30 percent to 70 percent of water - and pesticides and fertilizers, even to a point that there is no need of them - without changing the method of irrigation."

Oren continued, "But this isn't the greatest benefit either. When using the CommonSensor there is a great improvement of the quality and quantity of the fruit also. But because these qualities of the CommonSensor are not seen immediately, you have to be a very trusting person to give us credit for these changes. These changes do happen though. The plants, for some reason, when given the ability to irrigate themselves, actually give us their 'thanks' by producing superior produce," he added.

Common SensorThe Common Sensor (Publicity photo)

Not only does the CommonSensor make irrigation more efficient, but it also measures water usage data - utilizing a Bluetooth wireless connection to transfer the information to a laptop or smartphone. "It is possible to connect with the CommonSensor from anywhere to everywhere, giving the user the ability to be in charge of his fields from anywhere on the planet," said Oren.

Currently, the company is in the process of setting up partners in various countries, including Australia, Argentina, South Africa and the United States. You can watch a video on the Common Sensor's benefits below. Prices are expected to start at $1,000 per unit - with producers needing only one unit per field that has a single water source.

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