Poseidon Project uses IBM Cloud to teach effective crop irrigation

Students use sensors and data to understand when & how to water plants


“Turn off that faucet,” “Water ban in effect,” “Don’t be a drip,” are the warnings, rules, and slogans used to conserve water while brushing teeth, grooming lawns, or maintaining plumbing. But all of this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of water used to simply put food on the table. Crop-agricultural water usage accounts for 96 percent of the global water footprint.

The Dutch Courage Foundation teamed with the IBM Benelux Center for Advanced Studies to create the Poseidon Project, an initiative to reduce water usage worldwide. By developing soil moisture sensors, the Poseidon Project will help farmers know when is the most effective time to irrigate their crops.

The plan is to educate school children about the inefficient use of water in global agriculture and then develop affordable technologies for third-world farmers to reduce water usage. In Europe, the foundation sends kits to participating schools where children plant mustard seeds, and then build their own sensor hardware, connect it to the IBM Cloud, and share data about their mustard plants.

They use a Raspberry Pi computer to monitor soil moisture, temperature, and air pressure. Then, using the MQTT protocol, they upload the data to the cloud. The IBM® Internet of Things Foundation is the message broker between all the Raspberry Pi machines and the IBM Bluemix™ cloud-based application platform, which stores the data in an IBM Cloudant® database. The students can build applications to graph the data and then send notifications to users’ mobile phones as well as Twitter.

Students also take ambient readings like temperature and sunshine and use a small near-infrared camera to take pictures of the plants to calculate plant health and moisture. The data that is generated about the mustard plants is analyzed and applied to crops.

Irrigation is essential to grow the crops that we use for food and clothing, but rain can’t replenish the river basins of the world fast enough. For example, the Aral Sea was at one time among the largest lakes in the world, but it has been drying up during the last 50 years since the rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation. And because of the increasing demand for agricultural products, most of the river basins on the planet are heading in the same direction. This causes extreme climate change: Southern Siberia, where the Aral Sea is located, went from a relatively modest climate to extremely cold (minus 50C) in the winter.

The Poseidon Project plans to begin testing the technology soon in fields in the Netherlands and Russia, and then roll out the equipment free of charge to farmers in Africa and Central Asia.

A wise scholar once said, “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains.” How apt that the Poseidon Project has chosen tiny mustard seeds to be the seeds of hope for its small pilot project — which is ultimately expected to reduce worldwide water consumption by 30 percent.