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Professor Receives Seed Grant to Create Hydrophobicity Sensing Prototype


The exacerbating global weather changes have cast significant impacts with uncertainties on agricultural environment. One of the challenges faced by global population and recognized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is therefore securing water for food.

ZhiQiang Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Computing and Engineering, has been awarded a seed grant to develop a soil-hydrophobicity analytics system with rapid and cost-effective hyperspectral imaging and computing capabilities to evaluate soil hydrophobicity in agricultural soil.

“Soil hydrophobicity or water repellence in general has many adverse impacts on agriculture. To the best of our knowledge, hyperspectral imaging and spectral analysis (imaging that collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum) has never been fully explored to study the soil’s ability to repel water in agricultural land,” Chen said. He said the innovative use of micro-scale unmanned aerial vehicle (MAV or drones) as a hyperspectral imaging and computing system will allow rapid data collection and near real-time computing, which will help specialists improve the use of agricultural water for different soil types. He said they can then address excessive water runoff that affects irrigation efficiency in arid or semi-arid areas.

The project is a result of ongoing collaboration between Chen’s research group at UMKC and two established researchers in Israel, including Professors Eyal Ben-Dor at Tel Aviv University and Rony Wallach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At UMKC, Chen works with a small team, one doctoral student who will build the networked sensing system and a second doctoral student who will work on the computing aspects of the project. “I am very excited about this project, especially the international and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Upon completion of the project and through a two-year U.S.-Israel collaboration, Chen will have the prototype developed. “I can use my engineering talents to make an impact. Right now I need to work hard to build a system,” he said.

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The awards were made through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Water for Agriculture challenge area and the National Integrated Water Quality Program. The program aims to sustain water quantity, quality and availability for agricultural use while maintaining environmental quality. Chen’s grant from NIFA is one of 21 awarded to universities to support critical water problems in rural and agricultural watersheds across the United States.

The U.S.-Israel Project Team will continue seeking domestic and international funding opportunities for applied development and validation of soil-hydrophobicity analytics platforms for water-centric agricultural and environmental monitoring applications. Particularly, while forming extension partnerships with practice experts at both nations, the Project Team will apply for integrated grants through the future USDA’s NIFA solicitations.

Chen is a professor and researcher in the Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department at the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering. His research focus is soil-structure systems and multihazard life-cycle analysis; remote sensing and geoinformatics; digital imaging and machine vision for disaster scene understanding; crowdsourcing design for emergency response; and collaborative mobile-cloud computing.

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