Clemson opens high-tech lab to digitize agriculture

Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center has added a laboratory to develop sensor technologies that will monitor the health of South Carolina farms.

The high-tech sensor lab enables Clemson researchers to rapidly develop precision-agriculture technologies that once would take weeks or even months to build, test and refine. Products built here could save growers hours scouting fields and monitoring animal health, as well as reduce unnecessary pesticide applications or irrigation.

“We are designing technologies that will help growers identify and treat problems quickly before they spread,” said Clemson sensor engineer Joe Mari Maja.

Working with Clemson entomologists, agricultural engineers and agronomists, Maja is building circuit boards and sensors he has designed to be used in fields, on agricultural equipment or on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) he uses to scout fields for insects and disease.

Already, Maja has worked with Clemson entomology and agronomy experts to build a sensor called the BugsLite that attaches to plants and counts bugs. That will tell farmers exactly how many insects have infected a field and where, and how much damage they are doing. This information will help growers target insecticide usage quickly.

In another project, Maja has built a sensor that measures starch content on cotton. A high amount of starch is a sign of distress in cotton. In another, Maja is developing digital ear tags that monitor cow temperature and movement patterns to quickly notify farmers of poor health in their herd. In another project, Maja is developing a circuit board that will automatically engage an irrigation system based on readings from soil moisture sensors in a field.

With the new machines installed at the Ediso REC, Maja can build a variety of interface boards, controller system boards and “Internet of Things” products that allow technologies to collect and exchange data. Many of Maja’s technologies, like the BugsLite, currently use removable memory cards to transfer data. Maja is working on technology that will allow the products to share information via cloud networks so data is easily accessible. He also has created small circuit boards called “pups” that can transmit data wirelessly from one device to another.

Maja received Federal Aviation Administration approval in December to fly a UAV as part of his effort to technologize farming in South Carolina with the use of these “intelligent agri-tronics devices” that monitor the health of crops and livestock. Edisto REC recently hired research sensor assistant Philip Astillo to assist Maja in the development of this new technology.

With the support of the S.C. Legislature, Clemson’s Edisto REC has expanded its precision-agriculture program the past two years in an effort to further improve the profitability, efficiency and environmental sustainability of the state’s $42 billion agriculture and forestry industries. Precision agriculture utilizes data and technology to reduce waste and optimize farm equipment and materials by targeting the amount and locations of water, fertilizer and chemical applications to the specific areas of a field where the products are needed.

Courtesy Clemson