For agriculture’s sake, NYIT is getting its sensors dirty

By land and by air: NYIT scientists are creating a new wireless sensor system that transmits real-time soil conditions to relay drones.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

New methods for analyzing soil – a big potential boost for agricultural efficiency – may be coming soon from the New York Institute of Technology.

Researchers at NYIT’s College of Engineering and Computing Sciences have snagged a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant supporting their development of new technologies comprising an in-ground, real-time soil-nutrient sensing system (with accompanying flying robots).

Their goal: to sample soil and dig deep into its chemical composition, thereby “enhanc(ing) sustainability of the food/energy/water nexus,” according to NYIT.

Specifically, the interdisciplinary research team hopes its next-generation sensors will enhance crop growth while simultaneously reducing contamination from agricultural runoff.

Principal investigator Ziqian (Cecilia) Dong, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the CECS, cited population growth, climate change and “aggressive farming practices” as threats to an agricultural sector already tasked with growing smarter.

“(They) have put significant stress on the food production system for sustainable growth,” Dong said. “Furthermore, agricultural runoff from over-fertilization and waste from large farms into natural water sources disturb the ecosystem.”

That threat was evidenced during September’s record-setting Hurricane Florence, when visibly contaminated floodwaters covered large swaths of North Carolina. According to NYIT, the contamination was due in part to “hog lagoons” that washed over farms and surrounding properties.

Ziqian Dong: Ground-breaking.

Dong’s team – including associate mechanical engineering professor Fang Li, assistant life sciences professor Shenglong Zhang and assistant electrical and computer engineering professor Reza Amineh – will design in-ground sensors with WiFi capabilities, allowing them to share real-time data on soil moisture, temperature, pH balance, nutrients and contaminants.

They’ll also work up an antenna that can be attached to a flying drone, which will collect and relay the info.

At their command will be graduate research assistants ready and able to “work across disciplines to find solutions that increase sustainability and community resilience,” according to NYIT. Each of the lead researchers will work with RAs on a specific project aspect, ranging from polymer identification (that’s how you sense nutrients) to designing hardware (specialized drone antennas don’t just happen).

Other subsets will work on incorporating ground-penetrating radar and perfecting a drone-enabled sensor network.

With NYIT estimating that more than 70 percent of all global freshwater sources are influenced somehow by agricultural runoff, the project takes on more heft (the NSF labeled it “potentially transformative”).

And that’s especially true in a world where the best current soil analysis requires sample-gathering, transportation to a laboratory and a you’ll-get-the-results-when-they’re-ready mindset.

“This sensor system will enable precision agriculture, with lower costs to the farmer and to the environment,” Dong said.

This is not the first time the CECS has focused on a food/energy/water challenge. Former Dean Nada Anid, now NYIT’s vice president of strategic communications and external affairs, actively spearheaded FEW research efforts, including a U.S. State Department-sanctioned 2013 “eco-partnership” with Peking University.