Leave the soil, take the data

HANNOVER, Germany — German researchers have installed cutting edge sensor technology on an autonomous BoniRob robot to simplify soil testing. 

“We have developed a lot of components that have been bolted together to make it possible to have the soil sampling process, the soil preparation process and soil analysis process directly in the field,” said Vadim Tsukor of the University of Applied Science in Germany.

A key component on the soil-testing prototype, dubbed Soil2data, is a compact NUTRI-STAT Ion Selective Field Effect Transistor (ISFET) sensor module from Microsoft that was specially designed to test soil nutrient levels. 

The ISFET sensor module consists of four individual ISFET sensors and additional components for measuring soil properties. 

The sensor can measure nitrate, potassium, phosphate, pH, temperature and electrical conductivity of soil samples.

Tsukor said his team had to develop all of the components other than the BoniRob robot, which is produced by Bosch, Amazone and Werke GmbH, as well as the ISFET sensor module.

The team built a compact system that takes soil samples, prepares them for analysis by mixing them with water to create a solution and then returns them to the field once the analysis is done. 

“We need 20 minutes to sample the soil and prepare the soil, and after 20 minutes we have the soil nutrients (data),” Tsukor said.

“After this process the soil will be put back onto the field. We don’t need to take soil samples anywhere, we need to take only the soil data.” 


The soil testing tool built by researchers from the The University of Applied Science in Germany enables the robotic platform to autonomously test the nitrate, potassium, phosphate, pH, temperature, and electrical conductivity of soil samples. | Robin Booker photo

The robot follows a predetermined path across fields that can be easily set by agronomists and scientists.

It will then automatically take and test soil and upload data to the cloud. 

He said the quick turn over of soil sample results will help growers make real-time fertilizer prescriptions.

A second trailer-based soil-testing unit has also been developed that only takes 10 minutes to analyze soil samples. 

Tsukor said the soil-testing concept can be placed on many platforms including trucks and tractors. 

However, he said his team is working on having two analysis units on one BoniRob field robot, which would double the system’s efficiency and make it difficult for any other platform to match its productivity.

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