In contemporary agriculture, a multitude of technological innovations, including robots, drones, temperature sensors, and moisture monitors, have revolutionized the way farms are managed. These advancements, collectively referred to as precision agriculture, contribute to enhanced efficiency, resource optimization, and profitability. However, due to the associated costs, this technology often remains beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s farmers.

Susan Amrose, a research scientist at MIT’s Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, highlights the predicament faced by many small, subsistence farmers around the globe. These farmers grapple with dwindling soil quality, water scarcity, and limited land resources while striving to meet the increasing demand for food production. The urgency to transition to mechanized practices is paramount to address these challenges.

Amrose, who plays a significant role in GEAR Lab’s projects related to desalination, drip irrigation, water, and sanitation, underscores the need to make solar-powered irrigation and advanced tools affordable for these small farmers. The ultimate goal is to maximize crop yield per unit of water and land. Drip irrigation systems, for instance, enable precise water and nutrient delivery directly to the crop’s root zone, reducing water consumption by 20 to 60 percent compared to traditional flood irrigation methods.

Agriculture currently consumes approximately 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supply. Therefore, widespread adoption of drip irrigation, coupled with effective management, has the potential to mitigate water usage. Carolyn Sheline, a PhD student at GEAR Lab, emphasizes the importance of promoting economical, technologically advanced solutions for irrigation, which cater to smallholder farmers.

GEAR Lab has developed several affordable drip irrigation technologies, including a low-pressure drip emitter, a systems-level optimization model, and a low-cost precision irrigation controller. These innovations aim to optimize water and energy use while reducing overall system operation costs.

To ensure the success of these technologies, the GEAR Lab team actively engaged with farmers. By organizing “Farmer Field Days” and conducting interviews with over 200 farmers, suppliers, and industry experts in Kenya, Morocco, and Jordan, the team gained valuable insights into the specific needs and preferences of farmers in these regions. These sites were chosen due to their solar potential and water scarcity, making them ideal markets for the technology’s eventual adoption.

The precision irrigation controller, powered by artificial intelligence, collects weather data and calculates daily solar exposure and irrigation requirements, relaying the information to farmers’ smartphones. The level of automation can be tailored to each farmer’s preferences. In the first season of operation at a Moroccan test site, GEAR Lab’s technology resulted in a 44 percent reduction in water consumption and a 38 percent decrease in energy usage compared to a neighboring farm employing traditional drip irrigation.

It is not just about delivering a more cost-effective system; it is about creating a system that farmers are willing to use and trust, emphasizes GEAR Lab alumna Georgia Van de Zande. This approach has seen successful implementation in Jordan, Morocco, and Kenya, enabling farmers to operate solar-powered drip systems efficiently.

GEAR Lab’s collaborative approach, focusing on the farmers’ needs, ensures that the technology developed aligns with users’ requirements and constraints. According to Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and principal investigator of MIT GEAR Lab, understanding user requirements is fundamental to creating successful solutions. The team’s commitment to solving real-world problems, especially concerning water scarcity and climate adaptation in resource-constrained countries, holds tremendous promise for addressing these challenges on a global scale.

In summary, affordable precision agriculture technologies not only empower smallholder farmers but also offer an effective response to the pressing issues of water stress and climate adaptation. The ability to solve the right problems at the right time, at a large scale, is an exhilarating prospect for the team at GEAR Lab.

By Impact Lab