How Cosmic-Ray Probes and Drones Help Grow Food

Cosmic-ray probes? Unmanned aircraft? These may sound like they belong in a sci-fi movie, but they’re actually being used to help grow food! These technological advancements are used in farming, and the fact is the use of technology in farming is nothing new. And with a global population expected to increase by 3+ billion people by 2050, technology will play a critical role in meeting the demand for food.

Dr. Derek Heeren from the University of Nebraska explains how cosmic-ray probes and drones are being used on farms. Turns out, they’re aiding farmers in conserving one of the planet’s most precious resources.

What methods do farmers use to help conserve water?

Farmers use what is known as variable-rate irrigation (VRI), defined as “the ability to spatially vary water application depths across a field to address specific soil, crop, and/or other conditions.” VRI allows us to reduce over-irrigation on some parts of a field and under-irrigation on other parts of a field. In some cases, VRI may increase yields if low areas of a field suffer yield loss from too much water. Currently, most VRI systems use speed control on a center pivot irrigator, which can apply different amounts of water in sectors or pie slices. Zone control allows for much smaller management zones by controlling water applications on individual sprinklers or groups of sprinklers.

Why is it important for water conservation?

VRI has the potential to reduce groundwater or surface water pumping by reducing irrigation on acres that don’t need as much water. For example, heavy soils can store more early season rainfall and won’t need as much irrigation. Over-irrigation often results in water moving past the root zone and carrying nitrate and other solutes to the groundwater; VRI can help protect the quality of groundwater by reducing over-irrigation. VRI can be used to eliminate irrigation on any waterways or streams in a field, which is especially important if the irrigation is used to apply fertilizer or wastewater. Finally, VRI can be used to reduce irrigation on hill slopes that have a low capacity for infiltration and a high potential for runoff and soil erosion.

What other technologies are farmers using? Cosmic-ray probes? Drones? How are these helping?

Consultants such as CropMetrics frequently rely on electrical conductivity (EC) mapping of the soil and GPS data to characterize the topography in order to develop irrigation prescription maps. The EC is important because it often correlates to the water-holding capacity of the soil. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and the Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) are leading research using cosmic-ray probes to measure soil water content spatially in fields, which could then be used to develop prescription maps. UNL and the DWFI are also leading research on unmanned aircraft systems as a way to collect imagery to quantify crop water use spatially, which allows soil water content to be estimated spatially.

Why is technology important when it comes to growing food?

A growing population and environmental concerns require us to be good stewards of the natural resources that have been entrusted to us. Technology has been critical in increasing the efficiency of our food production system, and will continue to be critical as we learn to manage our resources more precisely.

The image “Farming” by Mauricio Lima is licensed under CC BY 2.0.