Princeton Studies Water

Igor Heifetz ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Kelly Caylor: Sensing the field for the world’s farmers

Farmers around the world are constantly making decisions based on rainfall and other aspects of climate. But those decisions are based on imperfect and incomplete information. That’s where the research of Kelly Caylor, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his colleagues comes in. They have developed a lightweight, solar-powered pod housing multiple sensors to collect crucial information — such as rainfall, wind speed, and aspects of crop growth — directly from the agricultural field. The data is transmitted via cellphone networks. The Pulsepod — 6.5 inches in diameter — will be commercialized by Arable Labs Inc., a company incorporated by Caylor, Ben Siegfried ’12, and former Princeton postdoc Adam Wolf, and should be available this spring.

Caylor, who has a joint appointment at the Princeton Environmental Institute, and his colleagues will use the pod to improve research on how subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa manage their food security as the climate varies during the season and over a longer term. Caylor hopes the system eventually could give farmers information on factors that affect crop yield, for example, so they could better ration their food supplies, but there’s not enough data to provide that — yet. “We are champing at the bit to get to the point where we can communicate important and actionable information back to subsistence farmers,” he says. Arable also will forge relationships with African companies, including a partnership with a microinsurance firm.

In the United States, Arable will sell the Pulsepod for about $400 (with a $100 lifetime data plan) to software companies that provide agriculture and weather analytics to farmers. Caylor says it will help farmers make better decisions about when and how much to fertilize and irrigate, for example, or when to send a crew to harvest. “We can make those predictions with increasing precision,” he says.