Irrigation Systems Soak up Top Prizes in Software Contest

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Not content with putting its software on the world's computers and mobile phones, Microsoft has its eye on the world's cornfields as the next software platform to dominate.

Microsoft awarded the top software design prize in its Imagine Cup programming contest to Smart Operational Agriculture Toolkit (Soak), an irrigation automation system developed using its software. The company will help Soak's developers, a team of Australian students, to turn the system into a commercial product, it announced at an awards ceremony in Paris on Tuesday.

Soak uses a Zigbee wireless mesh network to gather data on soil humidity and temperature from solar-powered sensors out in the fields, and displays it on a satellite image of the farm drawn from Windows Live Map (Virtual Earth). Combining the soil data with online weather forecasts and information provided by the farmer about the crops planted and their stage of development allows the system to turn on irrigation systems only when necessary, delaying irrigation if rain is expected.

By using off-the-shelf technologies such as Zigbee and Microsoft's .Net Framework, the team expects to keep the cost of a basic system with one sensor down to around A$3,000 (US$2,876), with additional sensors costing A$100 to make, said team member Edward Hooper. Systems currently on the market can cost 100 times that, he said.

Second prize in the software design category of the Imagine Cup went to a Slovakian team for its household energy consumption manager. Another irrigation system, Green Watering, won third prize. Its developers, from Budapest University of Technology and Economics, said their system can reduce irrigation water use by up to 50 percent. Both teams will receive help to turn their projects into products.

The top embedded software prize went to a Singaporean team for its work on an air pollution monitoring system. Joint second prize went to the Chinese developers of a marine pollution monitoring system and the Irish inventors of an engine management system for cars, allowing them to run on vegetable oil instead of diesel.

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