Smart irrigation

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University of Georgia horticulture student Jesse Lafian is developing a patent-pending soil-moisture sensor on campus. He plans to sell prototypes to professional landscapers later this year through his startup company, Reservoir.

Professor of horticulture Marc van Iersel, a smart-irrigation pioneer and Lafian’s adviser, explained what makes his student’s technology unique:

“The traditional soil-moisture sensors we have been using measure how much water is in the soil. But depending on soil type, varying amounts of this water cannot be extracted by plants because the soil holds it too tightly. Jesse’s sensor solves this problem by measuring how available water is to plants—that is, whether plants can actually use the water in the soil.”

Lafian thought of creating this sensor in fall 2015 as part of his horticulture coursework. His idea improves on tensiometers—tools that measure how tightly water is bound to soil particles. Unlike regular tensiometers, his sensor can function in very dry soil conditions.

Lafian said his tensiometer also is virtually maintenance-free. “Regular tensiometers are impractical for large-scale use because they fail when the soil becomes too dry; they must be checked often to ensure they are still working correctly. Maintaining regular tensiometers on even a few dozen job sites could be a full-time job.”

While completing the UGA Idea Accelerator program for entrepreneurs, Lafian identified his initial target market. “I interviewed 45 potential customers, and I got the best responses from landscapers who install and warranty trees,” he said.

“Besides improving survival of trees, landscapers need a way to check soil moisture remotely so they can reduce travel to job sites. Reservoir is currently working to integrate our sensor with an app and a website to meet this need.” Several landscapers have already asked to use the prototype when it is ready.

In addition to insights on market considerations and business strategy provided by UGA’s Innovation Gateway Startup Program, Lafian’s work has received support from multiple UGA sources. Funding from the Office of Sustainability, Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, Terry College of Business and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has enabled him to build several prototypes, the latest of which will be field-tested on campus.

“When I started this project, I wanted to create an accurate and affordable way for researchers to measure plant-available water in the soil,” Lafian said.

“Fortunately, it has expanded into an opportunity to reduce water usage, pollution and expenses for other customers as well,” he said. Lafian plans to sell his tensiometer initially to professional landscapers, and later to farmers, scientists, golf-course superintendents and homeowners.