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Water scarcity + dorkery

This article on worldchanging, along with some conversations that I was exposed to on RAGBRAI (where the people that I was riding with were seriously into sustainable agriculture, got me thinking. So I’m not into the farming thing. I have no affinity with the land whatsoever. However, I’m pretty into computer systems, and it disappoints me that there are so few opportunities to apply my skills in a socially responsible manner (or, to be more honest about my level of selfishness, to do so and make a reasonable living). Which got me thinking. It would be pretty interesting to me to put together some software to optimize drip irrigation in a few years when solar powered wireless sensors get cheaper. You could even put together an NGO or charity around the product, with optimized plans for effectively irrigating ground, donation subsidized kits, volunteer labor (help with putting the systems in place and supervision for installation and repair). The system would work something like this:

  • The core: A small, weatherproofed system-on-a-board computer, possibly solar powered (or you could just station it by the pump, where there’s power). Contains the control software.

  • A variable speed computer controlled pump big enough to push water from the water source to the farthest edge of the field, or a network of them.

  • The sensors are on stakes, a couple of feet high with solar panels up top. They’re simple soil hygrometers and some internal diagnostics, and maybe a green/red led to report health. They’d need to be really cheap, as you’d want to have a fair amount of them.

  • Your drip irrigation equipment has some solar powered and wirelessly controlled shunts with caps or batteries big enough to actuate a couple of times a night if needed, even when there isn’t much sun. They should also be able to report their health. You’d use these for routing water around places where the ground didn’t need to be watered.

That’s pretty much it. You could do a web UI accessible from a OLPC machine (which could talk to the control center wirelessly) so the farmers could fine tune the system for their crops and local environment, and you could work on a much simpler and intuitive system of control for locales where the level of education and/or laptop access is much lower, (but setting one person in a village with one of these laptops would likely be enough, as that person could do all of the fine tuning for many farms). The notional organization could also have educational initiatives for improving water use and could also lobby for smarter water use laws around the nation. It could also subsidize itself by offering up a certain (small) percentage of its people (on a rotating basis) as water use consultants for larger farms (although it’s unclear how desired this service is). In a world where clean, usable water is growing increasingly scarce and hence increasingly expensive, it seems to me that these systems (especially when subsidized) could pay for themselves in short order, and would leave more usable excess water in the system for the expansion of agriculture and for use as drinking water where it is scarce.

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