Electrochemical sensors: Soil analysis through precision agriculture

Electrochemical sensors: Soil analysis through precision agriculture

At the heart of modern agriculture lies a new approach known as precision farming. A vital component of this is the use of electrochemical sensors, which are sophisticated devices with a number of applications for farmers. Here, we look at how electrochemical sensors are being used to help shape precision farming of the future.

Precision farming explained

Unlike traditional methods, precision farming uses data and cutting-edge technology to increase crop yields, minimise resource usage and enhance overall efficiency. This ability to ‘do more with less’ optimises agricultural processes, fosters sustainability and enhances productivity, all while minimising environmental impact.

Harper Adams University identifies precision farming technologies as including geospatial developments using Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), robotics, communications, and sensory and other data-acquisition technologies, coupled with the Internet of Things (IoT).

What are electrochemical sensors?

Central to the success of precision farming are electrochemical sensors, which are designed to detect and measure various parameters critical to plant health and soil conditions. These sensors act as the eyes and ears of the farming operation, providing real-time data on crucial factors such as soil pH, moisture levels, soil nutrients and even the presence of harmful pathogens.

One of the key advantages of electrochemical sensors is their continuous monitoring capability. For example on-going soil testing can give farmers a deeper understanding of how different variables change over time, allowing for precise adjustments and interventions as needed. This proactive approach not only maximises crop yields but also minimises the risk of crop damage or loss due to adverse conditions.

In addition, electrochemical sensors support a more sustainable approach to farming by promoting resource efficiency and environmental stewardship. 

Sensors enable farmers to apply fertilisers and irrigation more carefully, reducing waste and minimising environmental impact. This not only benefits the farmer’s bottom line but also contributes to the long-term sustainability of agricultural practices.

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7 applications of electrochemical sensors in precision farming

Electrochemical sensors come in various types, each designed to measure specific parameters that are critical to plant health and soil conditions. These sensors use electrochemical principles to detect and quantify ions, chemicals and other contaminants present in the soil or plant material.

Examples of some of the main applications of electrochemical sensors are described below.

Yield optimisation

The pursuit of optimal yields is a delicate balance of art and science. Data from electrochemical sensors plays a critical role in predicting and improving crop yields through better resource management. 

Electrochemical sensors collect and analyse data on soil conditions, crop health and environmental factors, all of which is used in the search for yield optimisation. By analysing the information gathered from these sensors, farmers can make informed decisions, fine-tuning resource management practices to maximise crop yields while minimising input costs.

Moisture content measurement

Determining soil moisture levels is fundamental for sustainable agricultural practices. Too little irrigation will limit the growth of a crop or even kill it. But too much irrigation can be equally damaging and also costly for the farmer. 

Electrochemical sensors, using both capacitive and resistive technologies, offer precise measurements of soil moisture. Farmers can then use this information to tailor irrigation schedules based on actual needs rather than predetermined routines. This targeted approach not only conserves water but also ensures that crops receive the right amount of water, promoting healthy growth.

Soil nutrient analysis

Electrochemical sensors serve as invaluable tools for measuring soil nutrient levels with precision, enabling farmers to tailor fertiliser application to meet the specific needs of crops. This leads to optimisation of growth, minimisation of waste and better protection of the surrounding environment – for example, by reducing nutrient leaching and runoff into local watercourses.

These sensors are equipped with selective electrodes that detect and quantify key nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. 

pH level monitoring

Soil pH influences nutrient availability, microbial activity and overall plant health. 

Electrochemical sensors equipped with pH probes provide a continuous and accurate assessment of soil acidity or alkalinity. This real-time data empowers farmers to make timely adjustments to ensure optimal growing conditions so that crops can absorb nutrients efficiently. Ultimately, this leads to healthier and more productive plants.

Salinity detection

Excessive soil salinity can impede water uptake by plants, affecting their growth and yield. 

Electrochemical sensors, designed to detect ions like sodium and chloride, provide farmers with early warnings of crop stress or damage linked to increasing salinity levels. Armed with this information, farmers can adjust irrigation practices or adapt the soil composition to maintain an optimal growing environment for their crops.

Disease detection

Early intervention is key to minimising the impact of plant diseases on crop yield. Tackling these problems before they’ve had the chance to wreak havoc on the crop reduces losses in the most cost-effective way possible.

By identifying specific biomarkers that are associated with diseases, these sensors enable farmers to take proactive measures to protect their crops. This might include targeted measures such as the precision application of fungicides or adjustments to cultivation practices to prevent the spread of diseases.

Pesticide monitoring

Ensuring the minimal use of pesticides – only when and where they are needed – is essential for both environmental conservation and food safety. 

Electrochemical sensors, equipped with selective electrodes, track pesticide residues to ensure they remain within safe limits and comply with regulatory standards. This technology ensures that pesticides are applied in quantities that effectively control pests without posing risks to the environment or human health.

Leading the way

Many companies are working to develop and deploy technologies for precision farming. One example is CropX, which specialises in soil analytics and irrigation optimisation. Its farm management system “connects farm data, real-time conditions and agronomic knowledge to provide guidance for successful and sustainable farming”. 

CropX’s advanced sensors use cutting-edge technology to provide real-time insights into soil conditions, enabling farmers to achieve optimal crop performance while conserving water and minimising environmental impact. Globally, it has deployed over 20,000 sensors, and in February 2024 it launched a “first-of-its-kind pivot-mounted sensor to monitor field-specific crop water use”. 

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Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.