Soils are literally the foundation of the global terrestrial ecosystems. Soils are needed to sustain life, to grow food, to provide shelter, and to enable mobility of human populations. Therefore, the societal importance of understanding and predicting the near-surface dynamics of soils cannot be over-stated; such societal importance also points to potentially enormous commercial impact. Yet, there is currently no nationally concerted effort or entity to coordinate research and development into soil sensing systems and predictive models to comprehensively understand the current state and future changes of soils as regards their chemical, physical, and biological properties. This planning grant will explore building the Center for Soil Dynamics Technologies with the mission to support critical industries such as precision agriculture, climate change adaptation, natural resource extraction, emergency response systems, border security and defense logistics, habitat construction, waste and water management, and other geotechnical engineering systems with cutting-edge measurements and modeling of global soil dynamics on multiple spatial and temporal scales. This is envisioned as a national center supporting the R&D teams of these critical industries, allowing them to share information, techniques, and applications of both our technologies and data. The proposed Center is directed towards promoting and harnessing robust technological advances in sensors and devices, computing, communication, control, instrumentation, and data platforms that can provide persistent long-lived observations and exploration capabilities for the soil environment. Innovations at the component, subsystem, and system levels on these fronts will lead to a surge of new applications. Through the engagement of a diverse group of students, post-docs, and faculty, the Center will create numerous opportunities for inclusion and broader participation of underrepresented groups.
Global observations of surface-to-root-zone profiles of soil properties such as moisture, composition, and temperature are key in a number of science and application domains. These observations are needed to quantify links in the water, energy, and carbon cycles, and also to determine two virtually unobserved fluxes, evapotranspiration and recharge. In the Arctic, soil profile properties from surface to the permafrost table are key in understanding the impacts of climate change on the New Arctic. In agriculture, such observations are linked to new developments in precision agriculture to plan irrigation patterns and crop rotation. In ground-based operations, tactical decisions are executed based on trafficability and ground stability. Much progress has been made in the past few decades in remote and insitu observations of surface soil properties, but near-surface soil profiles remain virtually unobserved. The Center for Soil Dynamics Technologies addresses this major knowledge gap through research to enable a multi-scale and multi-modality observational scenario, with novel in-situ and low-altitude UAV-based sensors, high-altitude airborne and spaceborne remote sensors, energy-aware terrestrial wireless network technologies, and machine learning analyses to scale up from in-situ to regional coverage. This research will immediately benefit multiple industries, such as offering the agriculture industry an order of magnitude reduction in water usage costs, preventing the economic repercussions of surface subsidence from aquifer depletion, and enabling new observational technologies for defense industries. In the longer term, enabling more accurate climate projections via understanding the feedbacks between the water and carbon cycles by characterizing root zone soil moisture will enable economically viable adaptation measures. This improved understanding will also help meet societal goals such as less soil contamination and greater food security. Additionally, the Center will become a focal point of broader cross-disciplinary knowledge synthesis for many activities already existing on participating center university site campuses in research, teaching, and entrepreneurship.
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.