1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Reinier van der Lee


Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 


As a result of California’s latest drought situation, farmers are finding themselves cutting back on water consumption. The same goes for growers harvesting crops with relatively low water requirements, such as wine grapes. And while the IoT has yielded a number of H2O-conscious smart irrigation devices into the agricultural market, California vineyard-owner Reinier van der Lee has taken a DIY approach by developing a sensor-driven conservation system. Impressively, he was able to save 25 percent, or 430,000 gallons, of irrigation water resulting in a cost reduction of $1,925 — not too shabby for a platform that only cost roughly $600 to implement.

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Atmel: What is Vinduino?

Reinier van der Lee: The Vinduino project (Vineyard + Arduino) develops low-cost, easy-to-build and rugged tools for optimizing agricultural irrigation, helping to save at least 25% irrigation water. Project deliverables to date include DIY gypsum soil moisture sensors, a handheld reader and a remote sensor platform for continuous monitoring of soil moisture. There is ongoing development and collaboration to optimize and automate irrigation.

Atmel: What inspired you to start the Vinduino project?

RL: The Vinduino project started out of necessity to make the irrigation in our Temecula vineyard more efficient. We had irrigation managed by our vineyard management company. They decided when and how long to irrigate. My concern, apart from the labor cost, was that I had no control over water use in another year of severe drought.

Atmel: Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

RL: Due to the continuing drought in California, measures were implemented to restrict urban water use. For example, you can only wash your car at a carwash, and lawn sprinklers are restricted to three times per week. I realized that agricultural use of available irrigation water is five times more than urban use (8 million acre feet for urban use versus 42 million acre feet for agriculture). Subsequently, saving on agricultural irrigation is much more effective.

Although I was already sharing Vinduino details on my vineyard blog, entering the contest helps my goal to promote to a wider audience and find more opportunities for collaboration.

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Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize’s theme, how are you hoping Vinduino changes the world? What’s the mission?

RL: Drought is a global problem. 36 countries are in a permanent state of drought, and global warming is likely to make things worse.
This project provides the tools and lessons-learned to make agricultural irrigation more efficient. The data we collected in our vineyard shows that 25% saving is achievable, while maintaining crop production. Entry level setup is a handheld reader and a couple of gypsum sensors. Assuming high volume production, total cost can be kept to less than $25.

Being able to save this much water at such a low cost has the benefit of making Vinduino applicable regardless of the socio-economic circumstances. In fact, poor farmers in India can benefit just as much from this project as gentleman winegrowers in California.

Atmel: Surely, Vinduino isn’t the first water-conscious conservation system out there… what makes it different? What’s your vision for the next five years? Where do you see Vinduino going or what/who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

RL: During this project we collected sufficient data points to show that the savings potential was indeed realized. Soil moisture projects for Arduino are abundant. However, Chinese-made moisture sensors do not survive very long in the field. I came up a gypsum sensor that uses stainless steel electrodes. They are simple to build, low cost, and most of all, have proven longevity.

Another Vinduino improvement is measuring soil moisture at different levels, in and below the root zone. This setup allows you to manage irrigation water to stay within the root zone, not drain below the roots where it is off no use to the plants, thus further increasing irrigation efficiency.

I found that my gypsum sensors, and the same is true for commercial Watermark sensors, can produce their own voltage (concentration cell effect), causing a misreading of moisture level on the Arduino. I have not seen this reported before, and have changed the reader interface to cancel this effect out.

With improved irrigation efficiency, there is a risk of salt deposit in the root zone. Increased soil salinity is sometimes called “silent killer”, as it can significantly affect plant health and reduce crop production. The Vinduino handheld meter can also be used as a soil and water salinity meter. Best of all, it only requires header pins for salinity probe electrodes; additional cost for adding salinity measurement is only a few cents.

Understanding irrigation during a plant growing cycle takes time. Collecting more data and collaboration will provide more insight and ideas for further optimization. The next step is to provide a “ready to use” agricultural irrigation management solution that can be implemented fast and easy. Being a finalist in the Hackaday Prize is already a head turner and will hopefully open doors to design and manufacturing opportunities.

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Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has enabled everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardcore engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

RL: I am educated in electronics and avionics engineering. However, early in my career I decided to pursue product marketing. Too many interests for one single lifetime; ham radio, computers, winemaking, grape growing, Arduino and I used to play bass guitar.

Atmel: What are some of the core pieces of hardware embedded?

RL: The Arduino Pro Mini (ATmega328) is the core component of my project. The Vinduino handheld reader is basically an Arduino and a display. For connectivity, I use the popular ESP8266 Wi-Fi module, and for long range, I like using the Appcon modules. To keep average power consumption low, I employed a RTC module to wake up the Arduino from deep sleep.

Atmel: What hardware products or projects are you also building at the moment?

RL: The Vinduino project is not done. There is ongoing development and collaboration to optimize and automate irrigation. Currently, I consider using an Arduino Mega (ATmega2560) and Electric Imp as the central node for multiple vineyard measurement and irrigation controller nodes.

Atmel: Why pick Atmel (and Arduino) chips?

RL: Many companies try to make products for the Maker community, but only a few “get it” like Atmel. I am hardware oriented, and only just recently became capable of writing C++ code for the Arduino. I would not have been able to be where I am today with this project, if there had not been a supportive community with forums and solution examples to learn from.

Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

RL: My answer is basically the same as the one to the previous question. It’s important to pick a development platform with a supportive community and open source hardware, so competition keeps costs at a reasonable level. Especially for sensor projects where you do not need measurement updates every second, go for a power efficient solution rather than powerful processors.

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Atmel: Any plans to launch a startup and perhaps even take to Kickstarter/Indiegogo?

RL: If there’s any lesson to be learned from making it to the top 10 of both Hackaday Prize and Hackaday Best Product category, it is that you should aim for the moon to make it into space. So yes, I am not dismissing anything. I am openminded and excited about future opportunities to further develop the Vinduino Project.

Atmel: And… if you win, will you be heading to space or taking the cash?!

RL: Winning a trip to Shenzen sounds already good to me. Anything beyond that, I’ll make that decision when I get there.

Atmel: Anything else you want to tell us and our followers?

RL: Participating in the Hackaday Prize has been an awesome journey. Thanks to the contest, this project transformed from a vague idea to improve irrigation for my own purpose, to a clearly defined project that has the potential for improving many lives. As a result, the goal of achieving water savings became more important than the means (getting the project to work technically), making the project more meaningful.

Don’t miss our other interviews with fellow HaD Prize finalists Chris LowOpenBionicsEric WilliamEyedrivomatic and Radu Motisan!

5 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Reinier van der Lee

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