Monitoring Irrigation in Small Orchards with Cosmic-Ray Neutron Sensors

Sensors (Basel). 2023 Feb 21;23(5):2378. doi: 10.3390/s23052378.


Due to their unique characteristics, cosmic-ray neutron sensors (CRNSs) have potential in monitoring and informing irrigation management, and thus optimising the use of water resources in agriculture. However, practical methods to monitor small, irrigated fields with CRNSs are currently not available and the challenges of targeting areas smaller than the CRNS sensing volume are mostly unaddressed. In this study, CRNSs are used to continuously monitor soil moisture (SM) dynamics in two irrigated apple orchards (Agia, Greece) of ~1.2 ha. The CRNS-derived SM was compared to a reference SM obtained by weighting a dense sensor network. In the 2021 irrigation period, CRNSs could only capture the timing of irrigation events, and an ad hoc calibration resulted in improvements only in the hours before irrigation (RMSE between 0.020 and 0.035). In 2022, a correction based on neutron transport simulations, and on SM measurements from a non-irrigated location, was tested. In the nearby irrigated field, the proposed correction improved the CRNS-derived SM (from 0.052 to 0.031 RMSE) and, most importantly, allowed for monitoring the magnitude of SM dynamics that are due to irrigation. The results are a step forward in using CRNSs as a decision support system in irrigation management.

Keywords: apple orchard; cosmic-ray neutron sensor CRNS; irrigation management; soil moisture monitoring.