Friday, 5 August 2016

Testing “Chameleon” and “FullStop” equipment at ACIAR HQ in Canberra

ACIAR has been funding projects in Africa, and soon in Pakistan, to help irrigators manage their water better (LWR/2014/085 and LWR/2014/074). This work has been conceived as the “Virtual Irrigation Academy” (VIA), an online environment where growers and researchers can learn together using simple tools about how to manage irrigation water and nutrients better.

The research has developed the Chameleon Soil Water Sensor which measures how hard it is for plants to suck water out of the soil and the data is displayed as coloured lights. It can measure the soil moisture at three depths in the ground. The light for each sensor can turn from blue (soil wet) to green (soil moist) to red (soil dry).

To help farmers understand nutrient losses by leaching, the projects use the FullStop Wetting Front Detector, which captures a soil water solution sample which can be tested for nitrate and salt.

Since the projects are installing Chameleons and Full Stops across Africa and Pakistan we thought ACIAR HQ should have its own! Since ACIAR house is in the middle of Canberra we don’t have any agricultural fields, but we do have a very healthy mandarin tree in our front garden. So we thought it would be interesting to try the tools for ourselves (and provide feedback in the spirit of the VIA) and see what soil moisture conditions and fertiliser levels our much loved mandarin tree was experiencing.

So one winter’s day last month, Dr Evan Christen (Research Program Manager for Land and Water Resources) and Dr Robert Edis (Research Program Manager for Soil Management and Crop Nutrition) went out to install the equipment. We were kindly assisted by Mr Mathew Driver (one of the researchers developing the Chameleon).

Outlined in pictures below are the steps we followed to set up the Chameleon.

1. Wetting up the Chameleon sensors in a jug of water.

2. Charging the Chameleon reader from a laptop (battery light red).

3. Connecting the Chameleon reader to the ACIAR's WiFi network and then configuring the site    where data is uploaded. Checkout the data from the Chamelon sensor. 

4. Then off to the front garden of ACIAR HQ, where we installed the equipment below our mandarin tree.
Dr Evan Christen auguring the hole for the sensors. 

The soil taken by the auger stored carefully in the order it came out for refilling.

5. Putting the sensors at three depths of 45cm, 30cm and 15cm (following the colour coding of the cables) and refilling with soil (thanks to Mathew's helping hands!).

6. With the sensors now buried in the ground, we connected up to the Chameleon's reader. We will leave the Chameleon reader tied to the post, but farmers will carry the reader around with the and be able to test many sets of sensors. 

All three sensors are blue as they are still wet from soaking in water. It may take some time for the sensors to come into equilibrium with the soil. Blue means the soil is wet (best not to keep the soil in the blue), green means soil is moist (no need to irrigate yet) and red means the soil is dry (time to irrigate).

The Chameleon is successfully loading data to the web too. The screenshot below shows all the three depths are blue. You can too can check out the data.

Next, we installed the FullStop.

1. Robert digging the hole.

2. The FullStop was put in the hole. The top of the funnel is at 30cm depth. The tube connects to the bottom of the FullStop so that it can be drained of the water flowing into it.

3. The soil was backfilled onto the FullStop. We will be able to drain and reset the FullStop with the syringe, and also test the water that flows into the FullStop for nitrate and salt.

The setup of the WiFi and the VIAfarm website took about half an hour and the installation of the equipment took about half an hour.

Keep an eye on our Chameleon and mandarin tree and learn more about the VIA.

Learn more about the project and check out this previous blog that details results of the project.

By Evan Christen and Robert Edis, ACIAR

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