Farming News - A hand-held soil sensor that can produce instant results in the field in sight thanks to "game changing" funding

A hand-held soil sensor that can produce instant results in the field in sight thanks to "game changing" funding

23 Nov 2021
Frontdesk / Arable

High-tech soil testing is stepping out of the lab and into farmers’ fields thanks to a game changing cash injection of over a quarter of a million pounds, grant specialists Catax can reveal. 

Farmers are constantly striving to get the soil composition in their fields just right to maximise production. 

This is achieved using molecular sensing (MS) coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), to identify which chemicals are present using their molecular weight and in what concentrations. The technique is an alternative form of mass spectrometry which can be expensive and requires samples to be sent away for analysis. 

This means delays and higher costs for farmers, who are reliant on the results to determine the health of their soil and its impact on crops and land management.

But now, thanks to a £262,000 grant from Innovate UK’s Smart programme, Attribes Solutions and commercial partner Q-Technologies have teamed up to create a hand-held MS-AI soil sensor that can produce instant results in the field — literally. Data will be sent electronically to a central computer which will perform the analysis before sending the results back to the farmer’s mobile phone or handheld device. 

The project is being led by Imran Siddiqui, Managing Director of Attribes Solutions, a software development company that specialises in helping firms take emerging technologies to market. He is supported by Prof Steve Taylor, Q-Technologies' founder, who is also head of the Mass Spectrometry and Instrumentation Research Group at the University of Liverpool’s School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science.

The grant will fund a 15-month development project that will result in a prototyped unit, together with the software that will power real-time analysis, ready to begin field testing.

Very few farmers have the scale to make a mass spectrometer a worthwhile purchase — even a portable system. They cost from around £30,000, but this new solution promises to be a fraction of the price and therefore much more affordable. The team are also developing pay-as-you-test charging models that will make the technology even more accessible to farms of all sizes. 

Imran Siddiqui, Executive Director at Attribes Solutions, commented: 

“This is a fantastic example of an area where condensed physical technology paired with cloud computing can answer a modern problem, and liberate farmers from the time-consuming analysis that has been the mainstay of the industry for decades. 

“We’re very excited about developing the prototype and believe there is an enormous worldwide market for this kind of tool.”

Professor Steve Taylor, Managing Director of Q-Technologies, said: 

“Mass spectrometry is a great technology but it’s expensive and out of reach for smaller farmers, especially those operating on low margins. Furthermore, when out in the fields in the rain, few are interested in detailed spectral analysis. They want a point-and-shoot solution that gives them an answer on their phone straight away. 

“Currently, farmers have nothing like what we’re developing. It’s designed to be practical. It won’t be as accurate as a lab-based mass spectrometer instrument but it doesn’t need to be. Farmers just need to be able to make an informed decision about their soil at the point of use.

“Over the next 15 months we’ll be going from a bench pre-prototype to something you can put in a van or leave in a tractor. That’s quite a big step but this time next year we should be heading into farmers’ fields with a robust, working prototype, pressing buttons and getting results.

“This project wouldn’t have happened without the grant. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another thing to develop a way of actually making it a reality.”

Karen Taylor, Group Head of Grants at Catax, added: 

“This is a really exciting innovation that promises to revolutionise soil analysis for farmers all over the world. It’s also a great example of how effective grants can be at kickstarting projects that have an almost immediate real world environmental and economic impact.”