Eventually, there will be two modes of delivery for these tools, he says. “There will be Internet-based so you can go to your desktop or laptop computer and access these, or you can use a smartphone to access these tools. The producers involved are very interested in the smartphone access because they don’t want to be tied down to a computer. They want to be able to pull up this information wherever they may be and direct their farm crew to do whatever is needed.”

UGA SSA consists of smart sensor nodes and a gateway. A “smart sensor node” is defined as the combination of electronics and sensors installed at each location in the field. A UGA SSA node consists of a circuit board, a radio frequency (RF) transmitter, soil moisture sensors and temperature sensors. Each sensor node accommodates up to three Watermark soil moisture sensors and two thermocouples for measuring temperature.

The RF transmitter is a postage stamp-sized intelligent low-cost, low-power radio module capable of acquiring, analyzing and transmitting sensor data.

“Our innovation is that we have developed the technology to transmit the data from Watermarks wirelessly and cheaply. Our antenna is mounted on a spring-loaded device so farm vehicles can go right over it. We chose to use mesh networks, which is a low-power, effective way to transmit information.”

As the name implies, mesh networks create a wireless network between the nodes. The RF transmitters act as a repeater to pass along data from other nodes to form a meshed network of nodes. If any of the nodes in the network stop transmitting or receiving or if signal pathways become blocked, the operating software re-configures signal routes in order to maintain data acquisition from the network. To overcome the effect of the plant canopy on radio transmissions,  the RF transmitter antenna is mounted on spring-loaded, hollow, flexible fiberglass rods approximately 8 feet above ground level. This design allows field equipment such as tractors and sprayers to pass over the sensors – something which no other truly wireless system offers. The effective range of the RF transmitter is about 2,500 feet.

“An important characteristic of our system is its affordable cost – a 20-node system can be installed for a onetime cost of $3,500. Installing irrigation sensors throughout an irrigated field is a key to understanding and managing the soil moisture variability which exists in all fields.  With extensive testing, we have proven that our system is robust, reliable, easy to use, and affordable.”

Variable rate irrigation, says Vellidis, is a very valuable tool for producers in this part of the state because it conserves water by allowing them to remove non-crop areas from being irrigated. “We use a system by Farmscan, allowing you to control water application rates from 0 to 200 percent of normal.”

The Irrigator Pro suite of models which is being incorporated into FIST is in the public domain and is readily available, he says.

“We’ll have high-resolution precipitation forecasts. IBM’s Deep Thunder team is partnering with us to use these, and all of this can be downloaded to a variable-rate irrigation map.”

The FIST project currently includes 10 southwest Georgia production fields, ranging in size from 100 to 200 acres, says Vellidis. “All of these fields have a variable-rate irrigation pivot. We’re developing the “dashboard” for farmers who are using this system. Producers will be actively using the system this season, and we’re planning to have a smartphone system ready by 2014.”