Sniffing out biological soil health in-field with results in five minutes

November 16, 2023

An electronic nose to sniff out soil health that will deliver results to a farmer’s phone in five minutes is being developed by UK-based PES Technologies.

The company is able to create an aroma fingerprint from gas released by microbes in the soil. These organisms are essential for breaking down organic matter and making nutrients available to plants, but current biological lab tests are expensive and take 10 weeks to provide results.

Jim Bailey, CTO and Co-founder of PES Technologies, presented the prototype at the Agri-TechE REAP conference 2023. He noted that microbes in the soil are producing gases all the time through various means. “Our product is essentially a sophisticated electronic nose that reacts to these gases as they are given off from the soil to create an electronic fingerprint for the sample. This fingerprint is then run through our machine learning algorithm that has been trained using soils of various types from across the UK, and results provide soil quality indicators for the specific soil sample. The whole process, from loading the soil sample to receiving results to your phone, takes a little over five minutes. There is no need to transport samples back to a lab, which saves further time.”

Bailey continues: “The results are available immediately, enabling in-field decisions to be taken when it is relevant and matters. The GPS function will enable the information to be integrated within other field maps used to direct precision farming.”

Bailey said the company is interested in meeting end-users – particularly agronomists – as well as collaborators.

“Our electronic nose could potentially be trained on more indicators than the ones that we will offer on launch, and we are keen to explore what people are looking for,” he said. “We are happy to talk to companies that would want to fund a machine learning dataset for their own market niche and then utilise our hardware and machine learning support in that market.”

The idea for the sampling system came after a conversation with NIAB-EMR soil scientists highlighted the current issues that farmers have in assessing their soil health, particularly soil biology.

“We then completed a proof of concept Innovate UK project with NIAB-EMR, who were providing their soil science expertise, and a much larger follow-on project that included NIAB-EMR, Hutchinsons, University of Essex, the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich, and the Small Robot Company,” said Bailey.

The product will launch commercially in 2024.

PES recently raised £2.4M in a seed fund round. “This funding builds on the successful commercial trials PES carried out with large agronomy companies and farm businesses in 2022,” noted Andrej Porovic, CEO and co-Founder of PES Technologies. “It enables PES Technologies to complete product development, power product launch in 2024 and hire the key commercial and administrative staff needed to turn our potential into a commercial success story.”

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