Can smart technology offer remote irrigation for agriculture that’s affordable? With the help of WaterBit, the answer is “absolutely.”
When Manu Pillai, founder of WaterBit, was growing up in Nigeria, prolonged droughts were a typical occurrence. The massive shortage of water supply wiped out agriculture and devastated the country, severely hindering the ability of Nigeria’s economy to thrive. Pillai saw how it depleted his homeland and wanted to develop a solution that would address this issue globally.
“The idea of sensors came to mind,” said Pillai. “We needed something that would be able to monitor soil and crop conditions and deliver the precise amount of water needed for a grower’s specific acreage.”
Pillai started refining his idea through his treks across the world. He traveled with his father, who worked for the United Nations, and had the opportunity to live in numerous countries to observe how each community received, accessed and controlled water. When he was ready to put pen to paper, he founded WaterBit with Leif Chastaine in 2015. And in 2017, with the help of TJ Rodgers, he recruited Andrew Wright, a former Cypress Semiconductor executive vice president, to help assemble the building blocks for an invention that would have the potential to revolutionize irrigation.
WaterBit now offers a complete irrigation program that allows growers to automate irrigation across their crops.
HOW WATERBIT WORKS
“Essentially, we offer a complete package that can be installed in a matter of minutes,” said Leif Chastaine, chief operating officer of WaterBit. “We put sensors into the ground, set up the communication gateway and, in minutes, data from the sensors is sent to the cloud where the grower has easy access to analysis and scheduling tools that enable control of irrigation block valves.”
More specifically, the following four components of the WaterBit technology work together to act as one cohesive solution:
• Monitoring (WaterBit Carbon): Small, solar powered telemetry nodes—or Carbon nodes—are connected to sensors, including capacitive soil moisture probes, to monitor soil moisture and field conditions. They can also control actuators and relays. Carbon nodes are long-range and can communicate to WaterBit Connect thousands of feet away (up to 1.5 miles under foliage).
• Communication (WaterBit Connect): WaterBit Connect gateways provide connectivity between Carbon nodes deployed in the field and the WaterBit cloud application. Data from the sensors is sent to the WaterBit cloud application where it is analyzed to determine if a block needs water. Irrigation schedules are sent from the cloud through the gateways to the Carbon nodes that control the irrigation valves.
• Planning & Visualization (WaterBit Dashboard): Data is stored in the cloud and can be accessed by growers 24/7 via computer or smartphone to make fully-informed decisions.
• Automation (WaterBit Block Valve Controller): If the crops need to be irrigated, growers can access the dashboard and control irrigation from virtually anywhere through a mobile-friendly app. The control valve can then automatically dispense the precise amount of water needed for that block.
The smart technology understands that delivering water at the right time is critical to the success of a crop, while comprehending that the amount of water needed varies by crop and condition of the field. This results in a better, more informed water delivery, which is crucial in maximizing crop yield and quality. Chastaine notes that WaterBit’s system typically has a two-year or less payback and growers can achieve as much as 20 percent in yield gain.
Additionally, the startup’s fully autonomous solution saves hundreds of hours of labor by eliminating the steps of manually checking soil moisture on each plot of land and sending workers to turn on and off the valve.
“We don’t just send you an alert, we go the extra mile by providing end-to-end irrigation,” said Chastaine.
HOW WATERBIT PARTNERS
WaterBit joined the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) in March 2017 and, at that point, was in the process of creating relationships with numerous WG members such as Bonipak Produce and Bowles Farming.
During the 2017 season, Bowles used WaterBit to gather baseline data on soil moisture levels and correlated that information with crop yields. In the past, this was done manually. With WaterBit’s help, Bowles was able to better assess the water needs of the crops using the sensors.
This 2018 season, they plan to use WaterBit to make real-time irrigation decisions for other crops in the typical Bowles rotation. The farm also hopes to utilize the technology to assess water needs for new crops like watermelon and garlic, where they need to gather baseline data.
In the future, WaterBit looks forward to tapping the WGCIT’s resources—such as instant access to growers and exclusive opportunities to showcase their technology during WG events—to expand the startup’s network and bring this technology to more agricultural operations.
“In addition to providing a place to work and meet in Salinas, the WGCIT has been instrumental in providing opportunities to interact with growers,” said Pillai. “Understanding the needs of your customers is critical to developing solutions and in this regard, the WGCIT has been instrumental.”
WaterBit is continually looking to improve its solution to make its irrigation technology as easy as possible for growers. In their latest effort, the firm has partnered with AT&T to ensure that their communication gateway runs securely and uninterrupted. Their new relationship with AT&T provides highly secure connectivity to its autonomous irrigation solution and enhances growers’ ability to improve labor, water and land efficiency using the WaterBit technology.
“With the support of partners like AT&T and Western Growers, we will continue to strengthen our solution in an effort to make irrigation smarter,” said Chastaine.