Field: Sustainable water cycle, Water cycle management, Water cycle monitoring
Global Technical function: Distributing, Managing, Sensing
Technical Function Unit: Data analysing, Identifying, In situ physical sensing, Irrigating, Miniaturised and wireless sensing, Modelling, Networking, Software tool, Strategic planning

FLOW-AID

By far, the largest demand for the world's water comes from agriculture, as more than two-thirds of the water withdrawn from the earth's rivers, lakes and aquifers is used for irrigation. A declining supply of water and a decrease in water quality are two of the main problems faced by the agricultural sector today, placing enormous pressure on agricultural policy-makers and farmers. 

There is complex balance in giving the crops sufficient amounts of water and nutrients while avoiding over-irrigation that would imply leaching of water and fertilizers. To enhance the water use efficiency and a more sustainable water cycle achievement in agriculture, the three-year project FLOW-AID (Farm Level Optimal Water management Assistant for Irrigation under Deficit) has successfully developed and integrated systems and technologies for irrigating crops and for drainage.  The project was supported by the EU under the sixth framework programme (FP6), a grant funding programme, and started in 2006. Case studies within the project have shown that the introduction of combined innovative technologies can raise water use efficiency by 10-50 % while maintaining existing crop yields and that the use of fertilizers may be reduced by up to 30%. It has also been shown that the yields often increase thanks to the new water management system, giving the farmers an extra income that could be used for investments in new technologies for irrigation.

The system developed within this project combines innovative sensor technologies with a Decision Support System (DSS) for managing irrigation. Eleven project partners coming from universities, research institutes and engineering companies have combined their expertise in a networking effort to find together the best solutions and applications of the different components. All technologies were already available from the companies involved in the project, but were fine-tuned and integrated to make a suitable system.

The system consists of a sensing device, placed in the soil close to the crops. These in situ physical sensing devices are capable of identifying what is available in the soil in terms of water and nutrients, giving exact information on soil moisture and electrical conductivity. A hardware-based data gathering tool uploads agronomic data from the monitored crops. Data is accessible worldwide through internet, and an irrigation controller is used for optimal irrigation scheduling. This miniaturized and wireless sensing solution is thus enabling an automatized water cycle monitoring, giving an optimal recommendation of fertilizer and water, tuned to the need of the crops.

In addition, the system’s DSS is a web-based software tool taking expected water availability, amount and quality as input parameters to allocate available water and schedule irrigation for several plots. This data analysing DSS is capable of processing the information from the sensors as well as the stage of the crop and the weather, modeling crop response, nutrient and water uptake. The output includes recommendations for water scheduling and nutrient supply guidelines, suitable for a detailed and focused water cycle management.

The system is scalable from one to many farming zones and allows growers to a more advanced strategic planning process for distributing water, coping with water shortages as well as legislation within the water area.  It was adapted to the circumstances in a number of Mediterranean countries and for a large variety of constraints for farms. The so-developed concepts have been evaluated at test-sites in Italy, Turkey, Spain, the Netherlands, Lebanon and Jordan. These sites were chosen because of their different types of constraints, irrigation structures, crop types, local water supplies, availability of water and water sources in amount and quality, local goals and their complexity. The integrated system might not work in all parts of the world since these conditions vary. The general approach might be applicable but the system must be fine-tuned to each new local situation, and the economic situation should also be evaluated. Thus, the technology readiness level of the system is estimated to be 9 on the TRL scale.