Modern agriculture aims to optimize the use of nutrients, chemicals, and water, in order to produce more with a less impact on the environment and a greater food quality and safety. One of the way to reach such a goal is to shift towards the adoption of automated and precise allocation of water and nutrients for crop fields, that is a key component of precision farming.
Precision farming applications are being increasingly adopted by producers around the world. The use of digital solutions provides new opportunities for agriculture using unmanned operations, autonomous decision systems and artificial intelligence. In precision agriculture, Variable Rate Treatment (VRT) application focuses on the automated and precise allocation of water and nutrients for crop fields. It helps farmers to increase their yields by optimizing the levels and distribution of fertilizer and water. It is a key step in achieving the 4R’s of nutrient stewardship: right source at the right rate, right time and right place.
In the context of water reuse, the implementation of precision farming requires the availability of information indicating water stress and irrigation needs from the field site as well as water quality and availability from the wastewater treatment side. Solutions are being developed to assess irrigation needs using remote sensed data (Digital Solution 5.1) and contamination risks from treated wastewater (solution 3). Thanks to these solutions, data are available to match the agricultural needs with the local potential of water reuse. However, no tool exists to interconnect the data and create a channel of communication between the water provider and agricultural final users.
Limitations of current practices
The current standard working procedures do not follow the precision farming approach yet, and there is a need of a smart promotion of the awareness and involvement of stakeholders in this safe and sustainable practice. The re-use of water from WWTP, represents a great opportunity to show how precision farming, and in particular irrigation and nutrient management, can open new perspectives.
The gap currently existing in putting in practice the above principles is the availability of a match-making tool able to find an optimum between the requests/need from end-users (i.e. farmers) in terms of quantity and quality and the capability of the WWTP.
The developed platform is a new tool to best match water demand for the peri-urban irrigation and water availability from the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP).
It will delineate a new scenario where the “new water” made available by the WWTP does not represent a mere addition of water available to the traditional structure, but a chance for establishing new opportunities for traditional and, in particular, for new crop production.
The match-making tool is bi-directional. On one side, it provides the farmers a tool which combines water provision, quantitative irrigation advice and safety warnings. On the other side, it indicates the farmers need and the actual use of water (both in term of quantity and quality) to the WWTP managers. The integration of data from WWTP and agricultural fields will make possible a synergic integration of these two worlds supporting the development and real implementation of circular-economy models.
The solution is being tested at the WWTP of Peschiera Borromeo, located in the southern part of Milan Metropolitan City, and surrounded by an agricultural context typical of Lombardy Padana Plain. The agricultural fields in this area are mainly cultivated with fodder crops (especially maize) and irrigated using traditional techniques such as border irrigation. The water for irrigation is mainly conveyed from surface sources (mainly rivers or reservoirs, both natural and artificial) and distributed to the individual fields through a network of open unlined canals of different sizes, relying on gravity as the driving force. The scarce efficiency of water distribution on the fields is joined to the lack of efficiency in water deliveries, with seepages from the canals which can reach up to 50% of diverted water.
The outflow from the WWTP represents a source of additional water for the farmers of the area, which can activate new water uses by means of smart irrigation practices driven by the Match-Making tool that will be feed by using an active unmanned aerial vehicle for analysis of irrigation efficiency and experiments on an experimental plot (Digital Solution 5.1)
The experimental plot is located inside the WWTP area and it is constituted by an embankment of 1.250 m2 (25 m x 50 m). The plot will be sown with maize and divided in two parts (of 625 m2) respectively irrigated by a drip and a border system. The match making platform is developed in close cooperation between the water utility and local farmers and other stakeholders (e.g., irrigation consortia) in order to engage the relevant stakeholders in the definition of the requirements of the tool and facilitate its further uptake.
UNIVPM – Adriano Mancini : email@example.com
UNIMI – Gian Battista Bischetti : firstname.lastname@example.org
UNIMI – Claudio Gandolfi : email@example.com