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Sustainable Smart Agriculture With a Biodegradable Soil Moisture Sensor

Increasingly limited land and water resources has inspired the development of precision agriculture: use of remote sensing technology to monitor air and soil environmental data in real time, to help optimize crop output. Maximizing the sustainability of such technology is critical to proper environmental stewardship and reducing costs.

Now, in a study recently published in Advanced Sustainable Systems, researchers from Osaka University have developed a wirelessly powered soil moisture sensing technology that is largely biodegradable and therefore can be installed in high densities. This work is an important milestone in removing the remaining technical bottlenecks in precision agriculture, such as safe disposal of used sensor devices.

With an increasing global population, it is imperative to optimize agricultural output yet minimize land and water use. Precision agriculture aims to meet these conflicting needs by using sensor networks to gather environmental information for properly allocating resources to cropland when and where these resources are needed. Drones and satellites can capture much information but are not ideal for deducing humidity and soil moisture levels. For optimum data collection, moisture sensing devices must be installed at ground level at high density. If the sensors are not biodegradable, they must be collected at the end of their service life, which can be labor-intensive, rendering them impractical. Achieving both electronic functionality and biodegradability in one technology is the goal of the present work.

"Our system comprises several sensors, a wireless power supply, and a thermal camera for acquiring and transmitting sensing and location data," explains Takaaki Kasuga, lead author of the study. "The in-soil components are largely ecofriendly; composed of a nanopaper substrate, a natural wax protective coating, a carbon heater, and tin conductive lines."

The basis of the technology is that the efficiency of wireless power transmission to the sensor corresponds to the temperature of the sensor's heater and the moisture content of the surrounding soil. For example, at optimized sensor positions and angles on smooth soil, increasing the soil moisture content from 5% to 30% decreases the transmission efficiency from ~46% to ~3%. A thermal camera then captures images of the area to simultaneously collect soil moisture-content data and sensor location data. At the end of the crop season, the sensors can be tilled into the soil for biodegradation.

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How a Desire to Lead Brought This Wheat Breeder to Canada

Video: How a Desire to Lead Brought This Wheat Breeder to Canada

Gurcharn Singh Brar is a wheat breeder whose path meandered from the breadbaskets of Punjab, India, to the sprawling fields of the Prairies. In a candid conversation, Brar shared insights into his journey, the challenges faced, and the undying passion that fuels his quest for better crops.

It all began with a childhood rooted in the wheat fields of Punjab, where agriculture isn’t just a livelihood but a way of life. His fascination with wheat and its potential led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences at Punjab Agricultural University. It was during this time that he encountered the spectre of rust diseases, particularly stripe rust, which plagued the region’s wheat crops. Determined to combat this menace, he set his sights on a journey that would take him across continents.

Venturing abroad for his graduate studies, he found himself in Saskatchewan at the Crop Development Centre (CDC), working under the mentorship of renowned researchers like Randy Kutcher and Pierre Hucl. Here, he delved deep into the world of wheat genetics, focusing on stripe rust resistance — a quest that would shape his academic pursuits for years to come.

After completing his master’s and Ph.D. in six and a half years, he embarked on a professional journey that would see him traverse academia and research. From brief stints as a research officer to landing his dream faculty position at the University of British Columbia’s Plant Science program, his career trajectory was marked by a strong drive to make a difference in the world of wheat.

Despite the allure of British Columbia’s unique agricultural landscape, he found himself wanting to return to the vast expanses of the Prairies, where wheat reigns supreme. He recently returned to the Prairies and is the new wheat breeder at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“The opportunity to lead an established wheat breeding program at the University of Alberta was a dream come true. With the necessary resources and infrastructure in place, I’m excited to drive innovation and develop high-yielding wheat varieties tailored to the unique conditions of northern Canada,” he says.

Brar, one of Seed World Canada‘s 2024 Next-Gen Leaders, has become known for identifying novel sources of resistance to priority diseases and his efforts in developing wheat germplasm with multiple disease-resistant traits.

In addition to his groundbreaking research, Brar is committed to mentoring the next generation of agricultural scientists.

“I believe in nurturing talent and empowering students to pursue their passions,” he says. “Watching my students grow and thrive in their research endeavours is hugely rewarding.”

As he looks ahead, Brar’s vision for the future of wheat breeding is clear: “My number one target is to develop high-yielding wheat varieties adapted to the northern climates of Canada. By focusing on early maturity and strong straw traits, we can maximize yield potential while ensuring resilience to environmental challenges.”

His decision to also join the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye, and Triticale (PGDC) executive as member-at-large came from a desire to play an even more important role in the world of Canadian cereals.