Monitoring Water Levels in Rice Paddy Fields, Philippines

Water & Rice

Water scarcity is an issue that affects large swaths of the world today and is only projected to get worse due to global warming.

Rice farming is one of the biggest consumers of freshwater resources globally, especially in Asia where 90% of the world’s rice is grown.

Since rice is a staple crop in many regions of the world, water scarcity has the potential to put rice production at risk, and potentially lead to instability in the food supply of many countries.

Traditional rice growing techniques flood rice paddies with water for the entire growth period of the plant. However the plant needs different amounts of water at different stages of growth. For example, when flowering the plant needs more water, after flowering, it needs less.


Alternate Wetting & Drying

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) came up with the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) method for growing rice, saving up to 30% of the water usage.

AWD is a way to precisely irrigate the plant depending on how much water the plant needs at a particular stage of growth. The method is called AWD because the field alternates between being flooded and dry, however even when the field is dry, the plant’s roots have access to water below the ground’s surface.

AWD frees up water resources in rice growing areas and makes growing rice possible in much more arid regions of the world. However for AWD to work, and for farmers to have confidence in the method, the water levels at the root of the plant need to be consistently and precisely monitored in real-time.

Often, individual rice paddy fields are owned by different farmers who share the same water source for irrigation. The water source is centrally managed by farmer associations, irrigation associations or government bodies. The fields are irrigated at different times, meaning farmers need to plant their crop according to when their field will be irrigated, and with rain patterns are becoming more erratic, managing water resources to ensure there’s enough is becoming more challenging. By reducing the amount of water used in growing, and monitoring the water levels in the rice paddy fields, irrigation can be managed more efficiently and predictably.


Automated Monitoring of Water Levels


IRRI developed an automated water level monitoring system called AutoMonPH which measures the water level at the roots of the plant, and sends it via SMS to a backend server and website managed by the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhiRice).

SMS alerts are then sent from the server to the farmer, and irrigation managers amongst others. AutoMonPH is part of a larger research and development project called WateRice.


Optimising & Improving Reliability, Range

Freaklabs was brought onto the project to improve the reliability and range, and optimise the system.

We began with IRRI’s range and reliability targets, and feedback from PhilRice and the farmers on the usability, deployment and maintenance improvements. Another key focus was on improving the device’s longevity in the field, and streamlining the manufacturing and maintenance processes.

We leveraged parts of the existing system infrastructure and designed a new system that fits inside the enclosures designed by IRRI, measures the water levels, and transmits the readings wirelessly via LoRa to a gateway. The gateway then sends the readings to the database via SMS.  We power optimised the system for longer battery life, implemented checks / acknowledgements to the network and data backups to ensure reliability, and exceeded the transmit range target.


The Work

Coming on to the project, the first thing we did was work with IRRI to create a plan to manage the project. Because the project was large and had many moving parts, including functional design, fabrication, validation, field piloting, and deployment, we had to balance all of those factors. There were also multiple designs that needed to be managed at the same time, custom designs for validation and testing, and backend server infrastructure for both testing purposes and to integrate into an already existing IT back end.

A lot of attention was paid to how to ruggedize the devices so they would survive a full planting season in-field.

This was crucial because adoption hinged on having the technology be as low maintenance as possible for the farmers so it didn’t add to their labor burden.

Since rice paddies in the Philippines are located near each other, we essentially created clustered sensor rice paddy networks that measured water levels and fed the data into their monitoring system. The data were automatically monitored and farmers were informed if the water levels fell too low or it was time for a cluster of rice paddies to be irrigated.

Work never just stops once the design is functional.

We worked with IRRI to create a plan for device validation, testing, and QA before they would get deployed into the field.

We also assisted in sourcing manufacturing services, vendors and suppliers for components, and guidance on steps required to scale production in anticipation of government adoption in the Philippines as well as other countries.

The project is still ongoing and has been paused due to the Covid pandemic. We’re very excited to see the direction and progress of the project in the future.

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