GARDEN CITY — A machine scans the soil for water, measures carbon levels, temperature, wind speed and more, beaming its findings through the airwaves.
It’s not a rover on some other planet, it a new research technology sitting right in the middle of a Kansas cornfield.
“It is pretty cool, isn’t it,” Dwane Roth said as he looked up at the PheNode during a field day at the Garden City Water Technology Farm he manages.
PheNode is a crop monitoring tool created by researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. This week, a PheNode unit will arrive for testing at the Roth farm.
PheNode was invented by Dr. Nadia Shakoor, a crop phenotyping expert and Danforth Center research manager, along with Dr. Todd Mockler, phenomics & plant systems biology leader, to help monitor research plots.
“We have a lot of greenhouses and field spaces, and I wanted a tool that would let me buzz in to different areas,” Shakoor said. “I went online to see if I could find something that was customizable for different plants, and found it either doesn’t exist or is really expensive.”
So Shakoor set out to create her own.
PheNode is comprised of a solar powered tower that transmits field information to a dashboard on the owner’s cell phone, tablet or computer — much like the computer attached to a soil moisture probe.
But PheNode does more. It can run multiple soil moisture probes, and its suite also includes attachments that measure wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, carbon dioxide levels, rainfall and more. Shakoor said they wanted a plug and play system that could be adapted for multiple crops.
Other attachments include an RGB camera and infrared camera. The PheNode was created to keep an eye on different crops, as well as collect a range of data. It was built for researchers, but Shakoor and her team soon realized farmers and crop consultants were interested in the system.
Roth saw a feature on Shakoor and PheNode in the St. Louis Business Journal and got into contact with her and her company, Agrela Ecosystems.
He’s no stranger to soil moisture probes; several different types are installed at the water tech farm in Garden City. However, he knew PheNode was something different.
“If you’re going to irrigate, you need to have a soil moisture probe, that’s my opinion,” Roth said. “There are probes out there that are really good, I don’t want to take away from those, but what we don’t have right now is something that can communicate with a probe and pivot panel.”
According to Roth and Shakoor, that’s something they’ll be looking into using PheNode for at the Roth Water Tech Farm. If the PheNode can communicate with the soil moisture probe and the panel controlling the pivot irrigation system, it would make automated, variable-rate irrigation possible.
“Something I’m excited about is that eventually the dashboard on the PheNode may be able to communicate with the pivot panel and probe,” Roth said. “So by reading the amount of moisture in different parts of the field, it could tell the pivot to put an inch on in one place or 21/100ths in another.”
While Shakoor and Roth both hope to work toward using PheNode as a management tool for irrigation at the water tech farm, the unit arriving at the farm this week will be used as part of a cover crop study.
“We’re going to use it to help with our water quality study in our cover crops,” Roth said. “It will measure moisture with a soil moisture probe, but also measure salinity in the soil and water. The PheNode will be in the field all winter, and hopefully we’ll be able to see — based on its measurements — if the turnips and radishes break up some of that salt.”
The PheNode will also be able to track any changes in carbon dioxide levels, as well as serving as its own weather station — allowing for more accurate weather data, as the nearest stations can sometimes be hours from fields.
The PheNode is currently in the beta testing phase, and is being offered by Agrela Ecosystems in two packages: A $3,500 package which includes the environmental sensor suite, equipped with rain gauge, moisture probe and more, and a $5,000 package which includes the environmental sensor suite, as well as RGB and infrared camera attachments.
Both Roth and Shakoor said they hope to see that price come down once the PheNode is released commercially. Shakoor hopes to get the price down to $1,000 or less.
“With all it can do, the PheNode will be pretty cost effective,” Roth said. “I hope all this technology gets cheaper for producers.”
While the timeline isn’t set in stone, Shakoor hopes to see the PheNode hit the commercial market near the end of Roth’s trial in Garden City, early next year.
The PheNode is modular, allowing its height to be adjusted for multiple crops, is solar powered and made of aluminum to keep it lightweight.
Early models used PVC pipe for the body, but Shakoor said aluminum allows for easy transport. She is excited to see it move beyond research use into informing producers and helping them manage everything from chemical application to irrigation to weather monitoring.