Meet PES Technologies’ ‘Electronic Nose’ that is advancing soil health analysis

30th April 2024
Sheryl Miles

PES Technologies’ Co-Founder and CTO, Dr Jim Bailey, talks to Electronic Specifier’s Sheryl Miles about the Electronic Nose, an innovative device that is poised to enhance the way soil health is monitored.

This article originally appeared in the March'24 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

Soil health is vital to the sustainability of agriculture and the wider ecosystem, with the health of soil underpinning crop productivity; this in turn influences both yield and quality, and it plays a crucial role in nutrient cycling – helping plants to access the essential nutrients they need to grow. Moreover, robust soil health is an integral part of supporting biodiversity, as it provides a habitat for a myriad of organisms.

In recognising the importance of soil health, there is a growing need for advanced tools that can accurately assess and monitor these vital characteristics – this is where PES Technologies' Electronic Nose comes into play.

As a sophisticated yet user-friendly tool, the Electronic Nose offers a novel approach to evaluating soil health; focusing on biological aspects that are often challenging to measure but are crucial for a complete understanding of soil quality, it offers a comprehensive solution for sustainable farming.

Origins and conceptualisation of the Electronic Nose

With a robust background in experimental solid state physics from Imperial College London, Dr Bailey identified a crucial gap in soil health assessment. Conversations with NIAB (the National Institute for Agricultural Botany) and soil scientists revealed an unmet need in measuring soil biology.

"Traditionally, farmers have been known to smell their soil to check that it is ‘good soil’ but doing this lacks scientific quantification. Our device is designed to fill this gap by providing a scientific approach to measure the biological properties of soil."

Functional capabilities of the device

The PES Electronic Nose is a tool that employs a unique approach, avoiding the identification of specific gases and instead focuses on its interaction with the sensors.

Remarkably, the device conducts tests in just five minutes, significantly reducing the time compared to the traditional laboratory testing period, which can extend to several weeks. The inclusion of machine learning techniques further enhances the device's utility by delivering results in familiar metrics, like pH, that are easily interpretable for agricultural professionals.

Design challenges and technical innovations

Developing a compact device capable of such sophisticated analysis presented several challenges.

“The challenges are getting those volatiles or smells onto the sensor, and making sure you have a fresh sensor each time, as well as ensuring that the machine learning can compensate for any differences in temperature and ensuring the unit doesn’t vary that much in temperature and humidity.

“We have innovated a delivery mechanism within the device that houses up to 100 sensors. This ensures that each test is conducted with a fresh sensor, omitting the need for complex conditioning of air and reducing maintenance requirements."

Energy efficiency, robustness, and environmental design considerations

Energy efficiency and operational robustness were key considerations in the design of the Electronic Nose.

"The device is designed to operate efficiently, akin to the daily charging needs of a mobile phone. Additionally, features like rubber overmoulding and internal logs ensure its resilience and proper functioning in the demanding conditions of field use."

In line with modern environmental concerns, the PES Electronic Nose has been designed to minimise its ecological footprint. The device and its consumable sensors are made with minimal materials, and the company has plans in place for recycling used components – as confirmed by Dr Bailey.

"Our objective is to offer a tool for soil health monitoring that is environmentally responsible and sustainable."

Integration with current agricultural practices

Seamless integration with existing agricultural systems is a significant feature of the Electronic Nose, with the device being designed to complement and enhance current soil testing practices – working in tandem with agronomy companies and large farming operations.

"We are ensuring that our data can be easily integrated with existing farm management software, streamlining the soil testing process for our users."

Cost effectiveness and expansion plans

The Electronic Nose has been priced considering the diverse economic backgrounds of its potential users.

"The pricing model includes the device and bulk consumable sensors, with future considerations for a subscription model. This approach makes it an accessible option for various agricultural settings," says Dr Bailey.

Looking to the future, PES Technologies envisions broadening the capabilities of the Electronic Nose to encompass areas like animal health, compost quality, and other non-agricultural applications.

The Electronic Nose from PES Technologies presents a significant advancement in the realm of soil health monitoring.

With its focus on the often-neglected aspect of soil biology, the device offers a quick, accurate, and user-friendly method for assessing and maintaining soil health, and as it becomes more widely adopted, the Electronic Nose has the potential to enhance agricultural practices, contributing to more sustainable and efficient farming methodologies.

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