This award was made through the "Signals in the Soil (SitS)" solicitation, a collaborative partnership between the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA). One of the major challenges of the 21st century is to meet the goals of food security and environmental sustainability through more efficient utilization of soil and water resources. This requires a better understanding of the chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes and reactions of soil, and their effects on plant growth and ecosystem productivity. This in turn requires orders-of-magnitude improvements in the size and resolution of soil data. This research will accomplish these improvements by the proposed Soil Macroscope, a fully buried low power wireless underground sensor network that collects soil data in real time and with high resolution. This sensor network will enable the scientific fragmentation of the land into visual “geo-pixels” with multi-variate sensor inputs creating layers of soil data and related data. The objectives of the Soil Macroscope project are twofold: (i) to lay the foundation for reliable, field-scale subterranean sensor networks and real time data collection/curation systems; and (ii) demonstrate that such networks can operate in the field over an extended period of time to produce an integrated view of the soil environment and its local fluctuations.

The research objectives will be accomplished by combining progress in sensor and wireless technologies to build buried soil sensor networks. These networks will be deployed for field-scale experiments in a farm and a grassland ecosystem. By capturing the dynamics of soil moisture, temperature, oxygen, and nutrients simultaneously in time and space, it is hypothesized that techniques can be developed to predict soil emergent properties and the collective influence the properties have in regulating the biogeochemistry of an ecosystem and plant productivity. This prediction can significantly improve understanding of soil processes and enhance agricultural efficiency. This research is comprised of three thrusts: (i) sensor research where to develop a new on-chip silicon photonics based compact soil nitrate sensor with high sensitivity and a new technique for mapping volume water content of soil using the attenuation of the wireless signal used for data communications; (ii), wireless research to explore a new 150 MHz MURS band frequency and a new time coded low power communication protocol specialized for wireless transmissions underground for both 150 MHz and 902 MHz transmissions; and (iii), building a robust, scalable Soil Macroscope to enable field-scale experiments characterizing soil biogeochemistry and ecosystem productivity using the results from the previous two thrusts. The Soil Macroscope project is uniquely cross-disciplinary: spanning materials science, wireless communication, and soil science to develop experimental field deployments that will rigorously test the research output across these disciplines. In addition to incorporating the software, hardware, and field data into existing and new coursework, existing programs at the University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin will be leveraged to reach out to and involve school students in deploying sensors, analyzing the data, and devising experiments. The Soil Macroscope, if successful, has the potential to dramatically change the way soil science and agricultural practices evolve and can lead to new technologies.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Chicago
United States
Zip Code