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MEMS chip boosts wine industry

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A patented micro electrical mechanical systems (MEMS) device, developed by the CRC for microTechnology and Motorola , promises to boost Australia’s $3 billion wine industry by predicting water needs and disease risk in growing vines.

At 4-mm square, the chip’s size makes it ideal for “micro-climate” measuring compared to traditional, much larger sensors. The devices are capable of measuring wind speed and direction, temperature, light, humidity, as well as soil moisture and leaf wetness. The chip is equipped with wireless comms to allow it to report conditions to a central computer.

“The sensor nodes are distributed across a vineyard and send their information by wireless link,” says CRC microTechnology chief executive Clive Davenport. “They can be laid out in any pattern so long as each sensor is within radio range of at least one other. This means the network can be designed to suit individual farm layout and topography. New sensors can be added or removed as needed.”

The primary target of the sensors is the fungal rot Botrytis, described as “the scourge of the southern Australian grape growing industry”. By warning of conditions favourable to the growth of Botrytis, the sensor enables the grower to take preventative action, targeting the areas most at risk - so avoiding heavy losses and also reducing the use of chemicals.

The sensor is also equipped with a soil moisture meter which allows the grower to plan irrigations according to the needs of the crop, leading to potentially large savings in water and reduced risk of salinity.

The soil moisture array consists of three sensor modules buried at different depths in the soil. According to Davenport, being low-cost and easy to install, the soil moisture sensors will bring precision irrigation scheduling within the reach of many grape growers, leading to “potentially massive water savings” across the industry.

“While other climate sensors are available, they cost thousands of dollars, which puts them beyond the reach of the typical grower,” Davenport says. “Our sensors will cost only a fraction of that, making irrigation scheduling a reality for the wider farming community.”

The sensor—and similar technologies it—will be showcased at a major national conference on “Converging Technologies in Agriculture and the Environment,” to be held in Melbourne from 9 to 12 August 2004.

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