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Student Builds Smart Irrigation Startup

Remote soil-moisture sensors and smart irrigation systems have the potential to revolutionize the way that farmers, landscapers and homeowners use water.

University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences horticulture student Jesse Lafian has secured $24,700 in grant funding to develop a solar-powered, automated irrigation controller.

Today, most automated irrigation systems are controlled by timers, regardless of soil moisture. A conventional tensiometer, a type of soil-moisture sensor, is not used to control irrigation systems because it requires continual supervision. Lafian’s tensiometer does not. Lafian’s sensor enables irrigation control based on availability of water to plants. Sprinklers only engage when plants have restricted access to water and run as long as it takes to restore adequate moisture.

“What makes my tensiometer different is that it is virtually maintenance-free,” Lafian said. “Regular tensiometers are impractical for large-scale use because they fail when the soil becomes too dry. They must be checked often to ensure they are still working correctly. If a landscaper had 100 regular tensiometers on 100 different job sites, it would be impossible to check them all every few days.”

The technology is being tested as part of Lafian’s startup, Reservoir, a business he launched in early 2016 and plans to grow after his graduation in May. He moved to Athens, Georgia, to work as a research assistant in the UGA College of Engineering in 2014 after receiving his associate’s degree from Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York, and completing a National Science Foundation-funded oceanography internship. He began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in fall 2015.

“When I started this project, I wanted to create an accurate and affordable way for researchers to measure plant-available water in soil,” Lafian said. “Fortunately, it has expanded into an opportunity to reduce water usage, pollution and expenses for other customers as well.”

Lafian has applied for a patent on his sensor and plans to sell it to landscapers, farmers, golf course superintendents, scientists and homeowners.

“Jesse’s sensor works fundamentally differently from the sensors I have used in the past,” said Marc van Iersel, a professor of horticulture at UGA, smart-irrigation pioneer and Lafian’s adviser. “The soil-moisture sensors I have been using measure how much water is in the soil, but not how tightly that water is held in the soil. Some — or much, depending on soil type — of the water in the soil cannot be extracted by plants because the soil holds it too tightly. Jesse’s sensor measures exactly that — how tightly the water is bound to the soil. That tells us whether the plants can actually use that water.”

Lafian thought of creating the tensiometer in fall 2015 while taking a “Soils and Hydrology” course. In spring 2016 he turned his idea into a business, and in the fall, he participated in the Idea Accelerator program run by Thinc at UGA and Four Athens, a local technology incubator.

“During the Accelerator program, I interviewed 45 potential customers, and I got the best response from landscapers who install and warranty trees,” Lafian said. “Besides improving survival of trees, landscapers need a way to check soil moisture remotely so they can reduce travel to job sites. Reservoir is currently working to integrate our tensiometer with an app and a website to meet this need.”

Lafian is using the grants he secured to develop and test his technology so that field trials can begin. Several institutions at UGA have supported his work, including the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, the Terry College of Business and CAES through its newly launched FABricate entrepreneurship program. Lafian won the FABricate grand prize of $1,000 in March. In April, Lafian won $10,000 through UGA’s Next Top Entrepreneur, a UGA Entrepreneurship Program contest.

Lafian has hired two UGA students in engineering to fine-tune the tensiometer’s electronics, website and app. He has collaborated with the UGA Instrument Shop to build several prototypes to be tested on UGA’s Athens campus.

By Merritt Melancon

Pictured: CAES horticulture student Jesse Lafian developed a type of soil-moisture sensor, called a "tensiometer," that triggers irrigation when it senses that plants require moisture. Photo by Merritt Melancon