Irrigation goes high-tech with pump monitor

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMay 20, 2013 

Irrigation well pumps, like this one in a soybean field in Jonesboro, Ark., could be monitored and switched on and off from remote locations with the Smart Farm system.

Watering the farm is about to get high-tech.

Retired Lexington entrepreneur Bob Farinelli has gotten back into the electronic saddle with a way to take the techniques of environmental control he used at ELAN Home Systems into the field.

Way out into the field, spread out over thousands of acres, in fact.

Last year, while a representative was putting in a home system in Jonesboro, Ark., to control his TV, VCR, pool, sound system and air conditioning, the farmer asked if they could do the same for his nearby irrigation pumps.

That got Farinelli, who had retired in 2011, to thinking. Could they?

Turns out, yes. Through trial and error, Farinelli came up with a way to use radio frequency controllers to turn well pumps on and off, monitor how much moisture is in the soil, and gauge when more is needed.

Farm equipment suppliers were immediately interested, Farinelli said.

As agricultural sustainability comes under increased pressure around the world, the demand for precision irrigation — using scarce water resources more efficiently — is booming.

"We have a unique solution, that is being patented, that can help farmers without cell towers and satellites," Farinelli said.

Electronic systems have been tried but largely rely on expensive cell systems, with recurring costs.

Smart Farm will use simpler RF transmitters. With the 5 percent to 8 percent economic gains that farmers see from precision irrigation, Farinelli estimated that each Smart Farm pump monitor, which will cost a couple thousand dollars, could pay for itself in one growing year.

Three farm equipment suppliers already have signed letters of intent to sell it. The presidents of the companies are ELAN customers, so they already are familiar with the concept of running your home from your smart phone.

The efficiency of running a farm that way could save big money. Well pumps, which tap into deep aquifers, are generally in the middle of nowhere and can be miles apart, he said.

"When you can monitor and control your pumps from a central office location, you don't have to send someone out to check," Farinelli said.

The Smart Farm concept has been gaining traction. Farinelli recently won $10,000 in cash and services in the Venture Sharks competition in Louisville. And he won a pitch contest last year for $1,000 that helped him get started.

Farinelli honed his pitch with the help of Warren Nash and the Lexington Innovation & Commercialization Center.

Smart Farm has done small-scale testing at the University of Kentucky agricultural research farm in Woodford County and is getting ready for a large-scale wireless test.

"We believe in the technology and what we've been able to do so far," Farinelli said.

"Controlling a well pump turns out to be much simpler than controlling your VCR."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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