A 15-year-old student from Sydney has received the top prize in the national Made By Me engineering competition for young inventors with his ‘smart’ sprinkler system, designed to make farmers’ lives easier and reduce water waste.
The award-winning invention started out when Sabiqul Hoque, James Ruse Agricultural High Year 9 student, was given a classroom assignment – either to design an experiment, or develop an invention.
“Everyone else in the class chose the experiment. They were all doing pretty complicated stuff, but my one was the only project where I actually invented something,” he explains.
A gap in the market
Sabiqul first got the idea when he noticed that the timer-based sprinkler system used at his school had drastic room for improvement.
“It sprinkles water even when the plants don’t need it,” says Sabiqul. “So we mostly run it on manual, and turn it on when water is needed. But if we forget, plants can go for days without being watered.”
After looking around for a better alternative, Sabiqul was surprised to discover a gap in the market. Even the most upmarket sprinklers only had rain and soil moisture sensors, both of which were sold separately.
Sabiqul set to work, aiming to design an automated sprinkler system which would truly optimise plant growth. He would include sensors for rain intensity and soil moisture, as well as relative humidity, temperature, light intensity and wind speed.
“Just a bunch of logic gates”
For his first prototype, which took Sabiqul two months to complete, he began by drawing circuit diagrams for each of the sensors. He then built each one using a solder-less plugboard, or ‘breadboard’.
“It was really just a bunch of logic gates, it wasn’t too complicated.”
Logic gates are the main building blocks of digital systems. They perform a logical action (e.g. switch on or off) depending on what its inputs are. In the context of Sabiqul’s circuits, these inputs were driven by his collection of optimal plant growth sensors.
The inputs had to be carefully integrated so that the most appropriate ‘decision’ is made by the sprinkler software.
“If it is above 20˚C, it counts this as a high, so it knows to turn on the pump – unless the soil is already wet from rain.”
For his second prototype, Sabiqul bought an Arduino micro-controller after learning about them from his teacher Ms Kong.
Since their launch in 2005, these micro-controllers are now used in innovative classrooms across the globe. They use a simple version of the CC++ coding language and are suited to a variety of users with different skill levels.
The open source platform has been used for building a huge variety of electronics projects, although not all of them might be considered as useful as Sabiqul’s. Among the weird and wonderful contraptions brought to life by the microprocessor, you can find a singing plant, a desktop fist-bumper and even a butt-crack detector.
As for Sabiqul and his invention however, he’s still got a way to go before he’ll be happy with the final product.
“My piping system is very primitive, and I need to find a better pump. [The current one] is very weak – it’s based off the pump from a windscreen wiper from a car.”
But he’s not letting these glitches hold him back. He sees his project as being particularly useful in the viticulture (grape) industry.
“The quality of wine really is affected by the average humidity and temperature and lots of other factors – so farmers may want to be looking at using a sprinkler system with lots of sensors, like mine.”