New PheNode technology can help farmers make real-time decisions

In the Ogallala Aquifer region, where rain comes sparingly, Dwane Roth fights for every drop of water he can get.

It’s why he is always on the lookout for innovative ways to irrigate his crops more efficiently on his Holcomb, Kansas, farm.

Looking beyond his soil moisture probes, irrigation efficient nozzles and scheduling programs, Roth points to a tall white tower dangling with solar panels, cameras and other technological gadgets. He likens it to a weather station of sorts for farmers. It can allow farmers to monitor their plants in real time, helping them facilitate data-driven decisions, he said.

“I think this is groundbreaking,” he says with the same enthusiasm as a youngster getting a new bicycle.

The PheNode, as it is called, is a solar-powered, cloud-connected, plant phenotyping and atmospheric data collection system. After two years of development, a prototype was showcased during an irrigation technology field day on Roth’s farm in mid-August. Roth will be among a few Kansas farmers testing the PheNode in his fields seeded to cover crops later this fall.

“It’s a cool concept,” Roth said, adding it could change the way irrigators think about their daily water usage. 

Developed out of necessity

But farmers weren’t the first thought when Nadia Shakoor was searching for a customizable sensing platform.

She didn’t grow up on a farm, she said. Shakoor, who has a doctorate in plant science and a background in sorghum genetics, came to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis about four years ago where the PheNode concept was birthed out of necessity.

With all the center’s field sites and greenhouses, she was searching for a smart application that could track what was happening real-time in the field.

“But there was nothing out there customizable,” she said. “We are researchers looking at different crops every year.”

Shakoor, along with Danforth staff members Bill Kezele, a horticulturist, and Todd Mockler, a phenomics and plant systems biology leader, began working on developing the PheNode two years ago.

“I personally wanted to have a device that was an all-in-one-type suite that is wirelessly transmitting its data to my cell phone where I can track what is happening and see what is going on in real time,” Shakoor said.

That capability is similar to a farmer’s soil moisture probe, which helps them track how much moisture is in the soil and when they need to turn on their irrigation system. However, a PheNode measures much more, she said.

Sensors and cameras on the PheNode can take measurements of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, rainfall and wind speed. It can run several soil moisture probes. It can measure how light penetration in the canopy can affect yields, along with monitoring carbon dioxide levels.

Also, a camera arm allows farmers to see what is happening in the field, plus tabulate scan counts and check irrigation.

“All these different sensors are able to track what is happening,” Shakoor said. “Do you have the right temperature to go to plant? Is it raining? And the camera monitor is live, sending images back every hour. It is like a smart device.”

As more in the agriculture industry embrace precision agriculture, low-cost, energy-efficient, high accuracy remote crop monitoring devices will help them make data-driven decisions.

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“Everyone wants to micromanage their environment,” she said. “This is real-time decision making. It is not passively watching.”

 The PheNode is a flexible system, said Kezele. Many sensors are interchangeable to accommodate the user’s preferences.

“We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel and create a sensor,” he said. “We just want a platform that grows with the grower and the researcher because, it seems, every year we learn new things and things change very quickly.”

Going commercial

This fall, PheNode went commercial.

Shakoor, Mockler and Kezele started Agrela Ecosystems to help market the concept. Shakoor serves as the company’s CEO.

“We’re already taking orders,” she said.

The system prices at $5,000 and includes all the sensors, the camera, plus a one-year warranty and one-year tech support, Shakoor said. Another version, minus the camera, sells for $3,500.

Shakoor said they would be installing PheNode systems in Roth’s fields in late October.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].