Advanced electronic nose ‘sniffs out’ biological soil health

PES Technologies is developing an electronic nose designed to assess soil health, capable of delivering results to a farmer’s phone within five minutes.

This technology can identify an aroma fingerprint from gases released by soil microbes, crucial for decomposing organic matter and nutrient availability. Current biological lab tests for this purpose are costly and take ten weeks for results.

Jim Bailey, CTO and Co-Founder of PES Technologies, explained at the Agri-TechE REAP Conference 2023: “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.”

The emergence rate of seedlings, a key future yield indicator, makes optimising conditions on the seedbed crucial for crop establishment. Precision agriculture allows targeted fertiliser or seed rate adjustments based on conditions, but farmers often face a limited window for these decisions, complicated by soil composition and health variations across fields. The PES device aims to provide the necessary information for these decisions.

Bailey added: “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.”

The electronic nose also offers an objective, consistent soil health measurement over time. It can support farmers in qualifying for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which rewards soil and nutrient management improvements.

Bailey further explained: “As the testing will be cost-efficient, numerous samples can be made by the farm team, and the GPS and time stamping of the result enables tracking of changes with time. The GPS function will navigate you back to the same location through your phone to ensure repeatable samples. This provides an audit trail for the field, which may be helpful when applying for SFI.”

The concept for this sampling system originated from discussions with NIAB-EMR soil scientists about farmers' challenges in soil health assessment, especially soil biology.

Bailey recounted: “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. From REAP, we are 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. 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 product is set for commercial launch in 2024.