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NEIKER-Tecnalia leads pilot experiment to develop system for automatic control of irrigation

The Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development, Neiker-Tecnalia has developed a system for the control of irrigation the aim of which is to automatically administer the water needs of crops. In this way, the moment of irrigation can be chosen, strictly depending on agricultural criteria.

The project, designed by Neiker-Tecnalia and financed by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the Basque Government, arose as an initiative to solve the most common problems associated with irrigation: * Lack of water at key moments of crop development, thus causing hydric stress that bears directly on the production and quality of crops. * Incorrect management of water resources with “irrigation shifts” on days non-essential for crops, thus giving rise to imbalances between the quantity of water and the needs of the crop. * Generation of overflows and environmental impacts derived from the incorrect calculation of irrigation intensities, depending on the capacity of soil filtration. To try to avoid these problems, the project has incorporated knowledge about agriculture and the water needs of crops into a pilot experiment for the automatic control of irrigation; know-how possessed by Neiker-Tecnalia and the telecontrol engineering of the Arson-Engineering companies (aquARSON). Thus, the combination of the two systems is contemplated: * Automation of the irrigation network in such a way that, at any time, the network may be modified, either by extending it or by simply activating or deactivating hydrants. * Access to information about the water needs of crops in real time. These necessities are established either by mathematical models based on agro-meteorological parameters or through humidity sensors located on the terrain itself. Agricultural farms have to find the best possible productive and economic performance. Over the past few years the increase in energy costs and the limitations of water resources have emphasised the need to apply strategies of assignation of water based on criteria of economic and environmental sustainability. The implementation of these strategies requires a system of resources management based on scientific criteria, that enables the economic optimisation of the distribution of water, depending on its availability and on the needs of the crops. Conservation of water is an increasingly priority target in irrigation agriculture. The competition between agriculture and the rest of the sectors for scarce water resources is set to intensify even more in the future. The only way to meet all these necessities will be by optimising and by improving efficiency in water use. Current technologies, such as irrigation telecontrol, and those that will be developed in the future will enable us to respond totally or partially to the increase in pressure of agriculture and other activities on the environment. In this context, what will be fundamental is the application of government policies and measures that provide farmers the necessary incentives to adopt the sustainable technologies and practices when planning hydric resources. NEIKER-Tecnalia has the theoretical information based on mathematical models that determine the intervals and dosages of irrigation in such a way that, adapting to the available water resources, the productive and economic performances are optimised. Integrating this theoretical information into a scheme of irrigation optimisation requires the implementation of systems of automation and telecontrol of irrigation. The community of irrigators in Zambrana (Araba in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain) was the first to take part in the project through an automatic irrigation control pilot plant. This community is made up of the owners of approximately 500 irrigated smallholdings of different features and crops. For this project the telecontrol system has been installed on 160 plots of farming land. This experiment has been useful as a model for the evaluation of the operational performance of the initiative and the establishment of technical needs and improvements with the view to the implementation of the system throughout the totality of the smallholdings, as well as in other communities of irrigators open to modernisation. The development of this project, which lasted a month, has enabled analysing the viability of a system of assignation of water which would be compatible with the possibility of choosing the moment of irrigation, based on agricultural criteria and not depending on the system of turns of the community. NEIKER-Tecnalia was responsible for the monitoring of the transference of the project and has undertaken validations of the equipment, the technologies and software for the development of the telecontrol system incorporated into the irrigation-recommended models. Arson-Ingeniería provided the automation technology for the system: elements for the hydrants, field units and the irrigation control centre.