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Scientists Develop Soil Moisture Sensor to Save Farmers £10 per Hectare and Benefit the Environment

Originally published 11 December 2003

Scientists have developed a new "intelligent" reliable soil moisture sensor that is set to ensure horticulturists accurately irrigate staple crops such as potatoes and fruit, and enhance environmentally friendly farming practices. A collaboration between the University of Warwick and Herefordshire based McBurney Scientific led to the development of the new product that harnesses enhanced sensor technology for measuring soil moisture with wireless communication and the processing power and convenience of the hand-held computer.

Soil moisture conditions play a vital role in ensuring good crop quality and quantity, and the new device is set to simplify the task of measuring and reduce the costs of irrigation scheduling by more than £10 per hectare each year, compared with current soil measurement equipment. Compact and robust the battery-powered probe is a significant improvement on existing devices, which use complex technology and are often too expensive for use in low-margin crops.

Heat pulse technology embedded in a porous ceramic tip on the probe measures soil moisture content. Readings are then sent via radio signals to a hand-held computer, which can interpret the results to show how much water is needed to optimise growing conditions, depending on factors such as soil type. It automatically downloads the data within a 100 metres range of the sensor.

Dr Terry McBurney, owner of McBurney Scientific, said: "The new moisture sensor provides vital highly accurate information on the level of moisture in the soil, soil temperature and soil tension. This enables farmers to plant crops more intelligently and mitigate the effects of under or over watering."

Consumers demand high quality fruit and vegetables as well as environmentally sensitive methods of crop production, and the amount and timing of irrigation are crucial factors in ensuring a good crop. The sensor provides a record for suppliers on the use of environmentally friendly growing practices. Too little water causes plant water stress which damages crop yields, but the environment needs to be protected from water overuse, which can compete with the needs of wildlife habitats or cause agricultural chemicals to leach from soils to the environment.

McBurney Scientific initially approached University of Warwick's Innovation-Direct, a consultancy service for West Midlands based SMEs that provides free advice on product technology and markets, to take the concept of the moisture measurer forward into a saleable device.

Dr Terry McBurney, added: "Innovation-Direct enabled me to draw up a business plan for effective marketing and develop a product that is compact and cost-effective. Early direct contact with farmers raised my profile within the industry and provided guidance for product development. The information generated by Innovation-Direct was also highly influential in raising investment capital and funding to ensure its functionality and development."

Other potential applications of the device include horse racing where a more scientific explanation of the ground is required, as well as in sports such as cricket, where moisture content is crucial to pitch quality. The Soil Moisture Sensor will be available in mid 2004.


Dr Terry McBurney,
McBurney Scientific,
Tel: 0153 1670 261,
Mobile: 07932 153 896

Brian Miles,
University of Warwick,
Tel: 02476 572 505,
Mobile: 07801 721 903