Saving Water, Saving Money: How Revalcon’s Smart Irrigation System is Transforming Farming
Whether we realize it or not, most of us rely on irrigation in some way or another. From the rice paddies of China to the cotton farms of California, the practice of watering fields in areas too dry for rainfed agriculture underpins an enormous and ever-growing proportion of the crops grown around the world. Approximately three out of every four litres of fresh water used by humans is for irrigation, producing roughly 40% of the world’s crops – including cereals, fruits, vegetables and even biofuels. Without irrigation, farming as we know it would collapse.
For such a vital component of modern agriculture, however, irrigation is often surprisingly inefficient. Of the billions of litres of water used in farming every single day, a staggering 50% is wasted. Some of this is due to leaky pipes and faulty pumps. But a significant source of waste is the farmers themselves, who often lack the necessary information to effectively manage their irrigation systems. As a result, many well-meaning farmers inadvertently over-irrigate their land, pumping more water than their crops need.
In addition to wasting water, over-irrigation can have serious environmental consequences. The runoff from over-watered fields strips away topsoil, leading to soil erosion, nutrient loss and water pollution. The depletion of water sources like rivers and aquifers, meanwhile, is hastening desertification in some parts of the world. Ironically, over-irrigation can also make life harder for farmers: not only does it cost money to pump water, but excessively wet soils can stunt crop growth and encourage plant diseases.
As global water availability dwindles each year, the hunt for a solution to over-irrigation grows increasingly urgent. Now, an Armenian technology start-up is taking advantage of its country’s unique intellectual property (IP) laws to provide just such a solution.
The start-up, Revalcon LLC, was founded in 2017 by three entrepreneurs – Seryozha Barkhudaryan, Artyom Tonoyan and Grigori Kartashyan – who all believed that providing farmers with access to technology and data would help them better manage their irrigation and waste less water. They were soon joined by Gevorg Baghdasaryan, who works as the company’s CEO.
Combining their diverse backgrounds in hardware development, software engineering and water management, the Revalcon team got to work developing an integrated smart irrigation system. By measuring conditions in the field, and feeding this data back to the farmer, their proposed system would enable farmers to make informed, data-driven decisions about when to irrigate – and, equally importantly, when to turn the taps off. The result would be better for the plants and the planet. ‘The idea is to empower farmers to grow higher yields with fewer resources,’ explains Gevorg.
By 2019 Revalcon had made this idea a reality with the design and construction of a fully-functioning irrigation management system. Their solution consists of a suite of unique hardware and software. An array of solar-powered nodes, each about the size of a smartphone box, is connected to a farm’s irrigation network. These nodes monitor wind, humidity, soil temperature and the operation of the irrigation system’s pumps and valves. This data is then fed using wireless LoRa technology to a centrally-located server. The server is the brains of the operation: not only is it capable of receiving up to 12,000 messages from 100 nodes every day, it also securely transmits all of this data to the cloud.
Custom-built software makes the data in the cloud immediately accessible and understandable for farmers. Revalcon’s customers can access information about their farm via SMS, email, an online interface and even a smartphone app. Moreover, they can control their irrigation system remotely based on the information gathered by Revalcon’s hardware. ‘With real-time access to what’s happening on the ground, farmers can turn their irrigation system on or off from anywhere in the world,’ explains Gevorg. ‘They can also plan and schedule their water use for the future.’
The results of Revalcon’s ‘precision agriculture’ speak for themselves: farms use as much as 300% less water and see crop disease reduced by up to 25%. The system’s solar panels reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and its remote monitoring function reduces the time farmers spend managing their irrigation network by as much as one-third.
Recognition of the company’s achievements is growing: in 2021, Revalcon reached the national finals of the Entrepreneurship World Cup and won Armenia’s Green Agri-Tech Startup Clash 2021, a program designed to encourage environmental innovation in farming. Revalcon is also the winner of the ACBA Federation's fellowship, a year-long entrepreneurial incubation program that supports entrepreneurs tackling agricultural issues in Armenia.
With so much new technology being developed, the Revalcon team is working hard to protect their IP. ‘Nowadays, technology moves so fast that it’s difficult to stay unique,’ notes Gevorg. ‘Protecting your IP is one way to stay unique.’ Fortunately, Revalcon’s founders came from large, established companies, so they already knew how essential IP protection was when they founded the company in 2017.’
Revalcon’s name and droplet-shaped logo are both copyrighted in Armenia, where the company is registered.
The team’s most prized piece of IP – its server, the keystone of the entire irrigation system – is patented in Armenia in 2020. Owing to time constraints, the company made the decision to prioritize patenting the server over its other, less complicated, hardware. This includes the nodes, which Revalcon hopes can also be patented in the near future.
Unusually, Revalcon is planning to patent the software that powers its irrigation system. This is thanks to a new law, passed only in July 2021, that makes Armenia the second country in the world after the USA to explicitly allow the patenting of software. Elsewhere in the world, legal concerns about demonstrating the uniqueness of software mean that it is either difficult or simply impossible to patent it. Revalcon’s plan to patent its software will therefore put it at the forefront of global IP developments.
As Gevorg and the team set their sights on international expansion, they are aware that IP protection will play an increasingly important – and demanding – role for the company. ‘We haven’t faced too many challenges in Armenia,’ remarks Gevorg, ‘but we know that we will have to work very hard to secure our IP in our target markets of North America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the coming years, we plan to direct 20% of our funds towards corporate and IP protection in these markets.’ Software patenting, in particular, may prove difficult compared to the newly-simplified process in Armenia. ‘We have a very big job ahead of us,’ acknowledges Gevorg.
Regardless of the challenges facing the Revalcon team, the motivation remains unchanged: to provide farmers with the information they need to manage their irrigation systems in a way that is agriculturally, financially and environmentally sustainable. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which serve as a blueprint for a fairer and less wasteful world, have helped the start-up focus its efforts on some of agriculture’s biggest challenges. Revalcon’s innovations directly contribute to SDG 2, which aims to eliminate world hunger; SDG 12, which promotes sustainable consumption and production, and SDG 13, which calls for action to address climate change. By bringing cutting-edge technology to rural areas, the company is also contributing to SDG 9, which encourages industry, innovation and infrastructure.
Looking to the future, Gevorg and the team at Revalcon – which now numbers 13 – hope to be able to use technology to improve other areas of agriculture. ‘The sustainability of farming is vitally important,’ concludes Gevorg. ‘Even when other industries had to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, agriculture couldn’t close its doors, even for a single day. It must keep going, which means it must be sustainable. So, at Revalcon we really believe that what we’re doing is important – not just for the farmers, but for the environment and society more broadly. It’s a great incentive to keep working and innovating.’