Japanese people are likely to forget the preciousness of water resources. Thanks to geographical reasons and advanced infrastructure, it is very common for the Japanese to get drinkable water just by turning the faucet.
However, because seawater accounts for almost all of water existing on our planet, only 3% of the fresh water can be turned into drinkable water, with the ratio being lowered to 1% if excluding water (or rather ice) existing in the polar regions. So there are many problems in obtaining water resources, such as allocation imbalances between countries, pollution, drought and sea level rises caused by climate changes, not to mention the increased water demand due to the world’s growing population.
The SenSprout team is taking on such a huge global challenge. Leveraging the IoT (Internet of Things) expertise, they want to improve the water usage efficiency in agriculture, which accounts for 70% of the world’s entire water demand.
SenSprout CEO Kazuhito Mine explained:
Agricultural-use water accounts for 70% of our entire water demand. However, taking sprinkling water as an example, don’t you think there’s a more efficient way? On the other hand, we have been facing many issues such as last year’s severe drought in California and farmland flooding caused by heavy precipitation in Europe.
Mine has been involved in many projects including business incubation and investment as well as systems development. He is currently working on a sensor device system for use in agriculture, called SenSprout, in association with Professor Yoshihiro Kawahara and project researcher Kazuhiro Nishioka of the University of Tokyo.
SenSprout is a leaf-shaped sensor measuring rainfall amount and soil moisture, allowing users to receive acquired metrics with their smartphone or other devices. Sensor systems for agriculture are not a new concept but hard for typical farmers to implement, because these require an average of over 10 million yen (about $85,000) investment and a network for data acquisition.
SenSprout is still in the testing phase but has solved these obstacles by combining several new technologies. They recently won a huge cash prize at a business competition hosted by Chivas Regal.
We print a circuit on the leaf-shaped part of a sensor with conductive ink made from silver nanoparticles. Regarding power supply, we are considering several plans including wireless power transmission and solar photovoltaics.
The SenSprout sensor embedded in the ground can accumulate transitioning data of soil moisture and rainfall amount. Using the data acquired, farmers can create a heat map visualizing which part of their farming field is sufficiently supplied with water, which can help them eliminate wasting water and improve the efficiency in water feeding performance of sprinklers.
The sensor device transfers data to smartphones over BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) or ZigBee. According to Mine, his SenSprout team is experimenting to see how many sensor devices should be equipped in a certain width of a farming field, and plan to launch a full-scale business around this summer.
While planning to sell sensor devices for an affordable price ranging the tens of US dollars per unit, they want to create a primary revenue stream by introducing paying apps for measuring data. This kind of hardware startups usually faces problems upon mass production, but SenSprout will unlikely face such issues because CEO Mine has been involved in launching Cerevo, a noteworthy Japanese hardware startup.
While news media typically wants to deal with the IoT (Internet of Things) concept just as a buzzword, the key is how to transform existing industries like agriculture, fisheries and manufacturing into new businesses through improved productivity gained from leveraging innovative ideas and technologies.
In addition to optimizing water usage, the SenSprout device provides hints to solving major issues like pinpointing regional weather forecasts and ameliorating food supply situations. Information obtained from the device can be of great value, helping businesses grow further.
This tiny leaf may change the world.
Translated by Taijiro Takeda
Edited by Masaru Ikeda and “Tex” Pomeroy