Students Boost Food Production With Simple Technologies

These EPICS in IEEE programs focus on water monitoring and pest control

9 May 2016

Having enough food to eat might be considered a basic human right, but millions of people in poor areas go hungry because they’re not able to grow enough food for themselves, let alone have a surplus to bring to market.

Three Engineering Projects in Community Service in IEEE (EPICS in IEEE) are applying simple, inexpensive technologies to help people cultivate food to feed themselves. Rather than work on a problem posed in a classroom, EPICS in IEEE matches IEEE volunteers and student members with high school students to work in collaboration with community-based organizations on engineering-related projects. An IEEE Foundation signature program managed by the IEEE Educational Activities Board, EPICS is a public effort for which the foundation raises philanthropic dollars. To be chosen, projects must offer an immediate and broad impact and be sustainable.


    Drought, and the threat of famine it brings, is a fact of life for the people of La Paz Centro. The Nicaraguan town is one of the epicenters of water scarcity in Central America—the result of El Niño, the periodic weather phenomenon that diminishes rainfall on the region’s Pacific coast. But an innovative project could contribute to greater food supplies.

    IEEE student members from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, Nicaragua’s national university of engineering, are developing strategies for monitoring water for a slow-drip irrigation system, along with high school students from Colegio Centro America Paulo XII, in La Paz Centro; and IEEE student members from Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The group teamed up with Artists for Soup, a U.S. nonprofit working for food security, educational enrichment, and well-being in La Paz Centro.

    The organization is designing biointensive garden beds for the grounds of the Paulo XII school. Such gardens, which use no chemical fertilizer, rely on raised aerated beds to achieve high crop yields from a minimal amount of land. The soil has greater drainage and aeration because of the beds’ design and their organic material. The roots grow deeper and reach more nutrients in the ground. Water is used efficiently, with less of it lost to evaporation.

    That’s particularly important at the Paulo XII school; water is costly and scarce in La Paz Centro. The team used a US $2,300 grant from EPICS to purchase materials for the gardens and build a prototype system to monitor the slow-drip irrigation needed for the 70 10-square-meter beds. Such irrigation, which releases water at a low rate over longer periods of time, soaks the soil at the plant roots, uses about 70 percent less water than conventional sprinklers, and reduces evaporation. The water-monitoring system consists of a credit card–size Raspberry Pi computer with Arduino, an open-source platform running easy-to-use software. The computer monitors the environment by receiving input from wireless sensors. The main Arduino node collects measurements from the sensors and sends them to the Raspberry Pi, where they are stored in a database.


    Lots of farmers use pesticides to control or kill pests, but the chemicals can be harmful to humans as well as animals. And for farmers in poor areas, pesticides are pricey. That’s why the IEEE student branch at the JRE School of Engineering, in Greater Noida, India, decided to design and build an electronic device that could eradicate a variety of pests plaguing crops. The branch partnered with students at the Delhi Public School and the nonprofit Social and Cultural Welfare Organisation.

    The group received a $1,500 EPICS grant for its prototype: a battery-powered drone that uses ultrasound to repel rodents and other pests. Ultrasonic circuitry is mounted on the roof of the drone, which can fly about a meter above the crops. Ultrasonic tones at around 20 kilohertz, inaudible to humans, repel pesky creatures. The students designed the device so its output frequency could be changed depending on the target pest.


    Oysters are a delicacy for many seafood lovers, but their ability to filter out nitrogen-based pollutants from the water where they live makes them essential for other organisms to survive. An oyster can filter about 20 gallons of water per day, and the reefs they grow on provide habitat for fish and other species. One challenge to establishing oyster beds is that if they’re in the wrong place, sediment and pollutants can harm young oysters’ growth.

    The 7,300-acre Great Bay Estuary in New Hampshire, just east of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has been home to oysters for hundreds of years, but pollution, disease, and overharvesting came close to wiping them out. The New Hampshire branch of the Nature Conservancy and partners are working to restore the population by reestablishing the beds. First, though, they needed a way to track water flow, sedimentation rates, and other environmental factors, so they would know where best to place the beds.

    The conservancy partnered with the IEEE student branch at the University of New Hampshire and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover. The team used its $7,980 EPICS grant to build a sensor network that measures water flow over a 24-hour tidal cycle several times a year. The system is designed to be deployed seasonally. A prototype includes an array of sensors, a water-flow sensor, an Arduino microcontroller, a 12-volt rechargeable battery, and a GPS device to measure the unit’s position. A waterproof cylinder that holds the electronics is suspended by a tether anchored to the bay floor.

    The sensors measure the water flow—which is used to predict the sedimentation—as well as the air and water temperature and salinity.

Visit the EPICS in IEEE website to learn more or to make a donation or propose a project.

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