Published: Feb. 5, 2019 By

Over the next three years, CU Boulder researchers and their partners will develop, fabricate and test a network of 3D-printed biodegradable soil sensors aimed at allowing farmers to affordably and efficiently monitor crop conditions.

Greg Whiting Lab

Associate Professor Gregory Whiting and Research Associate Nikolaus Setiawan discuss electrical measurements. Photo credit: Cameron Douglas

According to the USDA, agriculture accounts for almost 2 percent of total energy consumption in the United States, making it an important part of our energy landscape. For this reason, researchers at CU Boulder are developing sensors that will monitor soil, environment and crop conditions so that inputs like water and fertilizer may be precisely matched to crop needs. By developing sensors to optimize inputs for greater crop yields, Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Gregory Whiting aims to mitigate environmental losses, decrease energy use and improve farm profitability for food, feed and fuel crops.

The Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy awarded Whiting and his team $1.69 million over three years for their project, Precision Agriculture using Networks of Degradable Analytical Sensors. PANDAS is funded as part of the Sensors for Bioenergy and Agriculture Cohort of ARPA-E’s first-ever OPEN+ program. This program seeks to develop ultra-low-energy distributed sensors to boost viability of bioenergy crops and reduce energy and water requirements for agriculture more broadly.

Greg Whiting Lab

Aerospace engineering undergraduate student Charlotte Bellerjeau takes thermal measurements.

“It’s critical we continue to develop cutting-edge technologies that our farmers can utilize,” Sen. Cory Gardner said in a news release announcing the award. ”I’ll always advocate for and support funding for these types of programs.”

Until now, sensors have been unable to affordably measure variables like soil moisture levels and nutrient concentration continuously and at high densities. This is problematic because to maximize crop yields, hundreds or even thousands of locations per farm must be monitored. Using 3D printing and simple designs, Whiting and his team will solve this problem by creating biodegradable sensors that provide near-real-time data with a predicted cost of less than $1 per unit. These chip-less, zero-power sensors are expected to provide a 100-fold increase in information density over current precision farming solutions which will enable more effective data analytics.   

PANDAS sensors are strategically designed with the farmers’ needs in mind. They require no ongoing maintenance, can be read remotely using existing farm equipment and will accurately and continuously monitor conditions over the course of an entire season. They also do not require careful placement, allowing them to be easily distributed over large areas at high concentration.

“Perhaps most appealing is that all of the components required for sensing are printed and are able to predictably, harmlessly and completely degrade into the earth when no longer needed,” Whiting said.

Greg Whiting Lab

Mechanical engineering PhD student Madhur Atreya prepares biodegradable electronic materials for printing.

At CU Boulder, Whiting leads the Boulder Experimental Electronics and Manufacturing Laboratory. His 15 years of experience in research and development of additively manufactured, solution processed, flexible and transient electronic devices and systems underpin the team’s current work.

For the PANDAS project, Whiting is joined by co-principal investigators Ana Claudia Arias, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Sciences Department at University of California Berkley, and Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University.

In a news release announcing the award, Sen. Michael Bennet commended the researchers for their leadership in the field as they prepare for their next three years of research together.

“Congratulations to the researchers at CU Boulder for securing this grant and leading the way to develop innovative tools to improve farming across the country,” Bennet said.