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Economic Viability of Ultrasonic Sensor Actuated Nozzle Height Control in Center Pivot Irrigation Systems

Department of Soil and Water Resource, College of Agriculture, Al-Qasim Green University, Al-Qasim District 964, Babylon 51013, Iraq
Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, College of Agricultural Science, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA
North Willamette Research and Extension Center, Department of Horticulture, College of Agricultural Science, Oregon State University, Aurora, OR 97201, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Agronomy 2022, 12(5), 1077;
Received: 11 March 2022 / Revised: 23 April 2022 / Accepted: 26 April 2022 / Published: 29 April 2022


The coverage of center pivot irrigation systems used around the world has increased. One potential factor driving their adoption is improved water application efficiency relative to some other sprinkler or surface irrigation approaches. Center pivot irrigation systems may be further improved by dynamic elevation spray application (DESA). DESA systems adjust the nozzle height in response to plant growth and canopy heterogeneities. The DESA approach is relatively new and there is uncertainty in its economic viability and worthiness of further investigation. Thus, an economic scenario analysis was performed to explore the potential economic benefits of DESA based on permutations of irrigation pivot efficiency without DESA, water-saving potential of DESA, and water cost. The weighted costs and benefits of the height-adjusted approach for a set of water cost savings scenarios showed the net return price with the water cost savings per season. We show that DESA could have economic viability at current component costs and is worthy of further investigation and refinement.

1. Introduction

Center pivot irrigation systems, invented in the mid-20th century, are now used around the world in field cropping systems. There has been an evolution of the center pivot designs driven by a need to increase irrigation efficiency and reduce costs by minimizing water loss, design, and installation costs [1]. For example, the mid-elevation spray application (MESA), the low-elevation spray application (LESA), the low-energy precision application (LEPA), variable irrigation rate (VIR), and mobile drip systems have been developed to increase application efficiency and reduce energy [1]. Ortiz et al. used two types of sprinkler irrigation systems (rotating spray plate sprinklers and fixed spray plate sprinklers) to study evaporation and drift losses [2]. They installed systems 1 m and 2.5 m above the ground and found significant evaporation and drift losses with fixed spray plate sprinklers at 2.5 m compared to the rotating spray plate sprinklers at 1 m. Another study found lower evaporation and drift losses when the sprinklers are near the ground [3].
The initial cost of specialized systems can be higher than that of traditional center pivot systems [1,4,5,6,7]. Hall and Lacewell assessed the relative economic costs and benefits of LEPA, surface drip irrigation (SDI), and furrow irrigation (FI) with an annual budgeting method and showed that LEPA was the most economical method [8]. Other studies have concluded that SDI is the most economical approach on smaller farms; the finding has been attributed to lower investments costs per hectare, lower pumping costs, and increased yields [9,10]. Contemporary efficiency gains were achieved by integrating center pivot systems with next-generation emitters, and by altering the fixed height of those emitters [1,11]. Such adaptations and design improvements demand substantial economic and resource gain [4]. Dhuyvetter, Lamm, and Rogers demonstrated the economic benefits of center pivots over other systems [12,13]. Technology adoption and innovation can be a pathway to support sustainable water management and reduce food shortages [14] and save energy [15]. Center pivot innovation can be a part of a collective effort to close the sustainability gap, which will also include multiple approaches such micro-irrigation adoption [16,17], minimal climate change impacts, reduced food waste, and additional transformative innovations such as smart greenhouses and agrivoltaic systems [18].
In this paper, we evaluate a next step in the evolution of center pivots: dynamically adjusting the emitter position relative to the plant canopy to minimize losses in a real-time-dynamic elevation spray application (DESA) [19,20]. We evaluate the economic feasibility of DESA through a cost analysis that considers three water savings assumptions to determine. Economic constraints informed the design decisions and dictate low-cost components to be used. The technical feasibility of DESA is then assessed by exploring the viability of a low-cost sensor to provide the key data input into the feedback-control cycle: nozzle height relative to the crop canopy. We hypothesized that a DESA center pivot with advanced sensing and nozzle height control would improve water distribution and management and has the potential to increase profitability.
The objective of the present study was to evaluate the economic and technical feasibility of DESA. This was achieved by performing an economic analysis for the feasibility of the deployment of such sensors for various cropping systems and comparing the net returns/gains with those of a conventional system.

2. Material and Method

2.1. Cost Estimates

The base case center pivot (CP) is a 305 m device irrigating 33 ha (81 acres) operating at 41.4 kPa. Electrical inputs are evaluated using the state commercial electricity supply (USD 0.1/kW-hr). The total time required to apply 1.27 cm over 33 ha was calculated as 33 h. The financial analysis considered (a) power requirements, (b) set up (CP system) and DESA assembly (present study), (c) sprinkler system, (d) pumps, and (e) bore well. The costs are provided in Table 1.
The total calculated annual cost included the total fixed cost (assets and infrastructure) and the total operational and maintenance costs including repair and replacement, water costs, and energy costs. Annual asset depreciation was calculated using straight-line depreciation. The net present value (NPV) sensor cost and its integration into the conventional setup were calculated and recorded annually at a discounted rate of 12.5%. Interest rates for the various assets were based on specified figures and were calculated as the mean of the initial cost plus the salvage value multiplied by the rate of interest (i.e., 8.5% on assets and 1.4% on taxes and insurance). In addition, the cost of the assembly was computed to determine the final cost of the base system with and without DESA. The initial center pivot system cost to cover 33 ha would be USD 104,000. The next step was to include the water savings to determine the final cost of including DESA into the base system.

2.2. DESA Components, and Low-Cost Sensor Test

DESA-enabled pivots would require that each nozzle be associated with a sensor, a microprocessor, and a motorized means to adjust the position of the nozzle head. DESA connects to a microcontroller, like Arduino [21]. Ultrasonic distance sensors (model HC-SR04) have an established work history with Arduino in agricultural and environmental applications. Al-agele et al. [20] presented the fully constructed DESA prototype. The Arduino UNO R3 Mega 2560 (<USD 15) was selected for sensor design and control for the present study. The sensor is positioned 0.2 m above the nozzle to protect the sensor from the water, and all electronic parts are secured inside high-density polymer enclosures. This basic design contains a flange, 0.019 m (45 degree) elbow, 0.077 m (90 degree) elbow, PVC expansion fitting, with additional parts made by a laser cutter and a 3-D printer. The total cost of the components used to construct the prototype was USD 72, with about half of that cost allocated to the DC motor. A DESA design and full breakdown of the component costs is presented in Figure 1 and Figure 2.

2.3. Calculation of Water Losses in the Center Pivot Irrigation System

A typical 33 ha center pivot irrigation system may apply 160 cubic meters of water per irrigation event [22] and up to 132,000 cubic meters per season. These amounts do vary by crop and local on-the-ground conditions. Water pumping costs also vary depending on water source location with particular differences between rivers and wells [23]. A center pivot applies this water with an approximate water application efficiency of 85% [24] with the 15% water loss caused by wind drift and evaporation. Water loss by wind drift comprises the majority of losses and accounts for 50–70% [25] of the lost water fraction, see Table 2. Thus, our later analysis explores the range of these values, e.g., 50%, 60%, and 70% wind drift loss percentages are explored.
The total irrigation water loss per area was calculated as the water loses percentage from wind draft times application efficiency losses in the center pivot irrigation times total water applied per area [24,25].
The wind drift losses of center pivot irrigation may be reduced by DESA, which would result in higher application efficiency. This is achieved by adjusting the relative position of the droplet nozzle automatically and reducing the distance between the plant canopy and the nozzle. Potential water savings can be projected by assuming a reduction in wind drift losses for each of the considered scenarios: 50%, 60%, and 70%. This exploration of the potential scenarios is presented in Table 3. DESA cannot eliminate the losses due to wind drift, only reduce them. To compute the potential water savings, we explored the potential of DESA to reduce wind drift by 15%, 25%, 35%, 45%, 55%, and 65% to save water from wind drafts during the irrigation event (Equation (1)). Values are presented in Table 3.
Total water saving per area = water-saving percentage * total water loss by wind draft per area
There is a wide range in the price paid for irrigation water in the United States which ranges from USD 0.005 per m3 to USD 0.01 per m3 with some States having elevated prices from irrigation water becoming more expensive from USD 0.02 to more than USD 0.10 per m3 [26]. D’Odorico et al. determined that the global irrigation water prices for five major crops Wheat, Maize, Rice, Soybean, and Potatoes are USD 0.05/m3, USD 0.16/m3, USD 0.10/m3, and USD 0.67/m3, respectively [27]. Water values ranging from USD 0.005 to $0.10 per m3 are used in the analysis below to determine the value of the lost water in the calculations below (Table 4 and Table 5).

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. Irrigation Water Value Lost by Wind Drift Additionally, Savings with DESA

The value of water lost to wind drift is presented in Table 4. Furthermore, the potential value of the wind drift reduction potential of DESA is presented in Table 5. The values are highly dependent on the situation and circumstances of an individual system and can span across two orders of magnitude.

3.2. Climate Change

Climate change may also play a role in wind drift loss in the future. First, climate change affects wind speed which leads to increased evapotranspiration (ETo) from the crops [28] and potential evapotranspiration (PET). This leads to rising crop water requirement (CWR) [29]. Thus, if loss fractions are similar, the water lost by wind drift would increase proportionately in absolute terms. The increased water demands may also lead to increased water costs in the future. This, coupled with the cited literature on localized higher costs of water necessitated the inclusion of scenarios (USD 0.15, USD 0.20, and USD 0.25). The result is presented in Table 6. In addition, water-saving from the DESA system in the same scenarios is presented in Table 7.

3.3. Economic Viability of DESA

We hypothesized that the increased cost of DESA can be offset by increased efficiency in either water, fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide use. In the most conservative case, these savings would come from water use alone. Thus, a series of water savings scenarios (50% to 70%) were explored and the irrigation water saving price of the DESA system per season as a function of hypothetical water savings was calculated. These water-saving prices are presented in Table 3. To calculate the total saving price after using the DESA system during the season, one needs to know the total price of the DESA system per area. The total price of the DESA system can be calculated by Equation (2).
The total cost of DESA system per area = (price per nozzle) * (# nozzles on 33 ha center pivot)
Total cost of DESA system per area = USD 72 * 50 = USD 3600
The total price for DESA design is USD 3600 to cover 33 ha with center pivot irrigation. A conservative assumption is that the unit price for DESA should be lower. The systems that control individual nozzles must be made inexpensively from low-cost components for DESA to be economically viable. Improvements in the productivity of the crops due to better water distribution, water use efficiency, and savings in fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides owing to low water inputs could further improve the net returns and profits. However, all potential benefits (including verified water savings potential) are, as of this publication, not yet demonstrated for DESA. Investigations on the effects of DESA are needed for a more robust economic analysis. However, such outcomes would be dependent on nature and the type of crop, the topography, the pedosphere, and the weather conditions.
The DESA profits rise with increased water cost and application efficiency (efficiency gains through reduced wind drift). The net returns per season are calculated by Equation (3) and the results shown in Table 8 and Table 9 with climate change in the future with new water cost assumptions
Total water cost savings per season = (irrigation water saving per season) * (#seasons/year) * (4-year payback period)

3.4. Calculation of the Installation, Maintenance, and Operation Including DESA System

Fixed costs for the installation, maintenance, and operation of the center pivot (base case) were USD 104,243 (USD 3158.88/ha). The integration of DESA into the base case increases those costs by an amount that depends on the DESA’s investment capital cost. The annual fixed cost was calculated based on the initial investment costs. It is assumed that the resale value of the assets at the end of their useful life is negligible. Moreover, depreciation is calculated based on the lifespan of the assets and their utilities only. The lifespan of the DESA assembly was assumed to be 20 years, but other lifespan estimates could also be explored. The lifespans of the other assets range from 10-25 years [25]. The sum of the depreciation cost (1), the rate of interest (8.5%; 2), taxes, and insurance (1.4%; 3) (DITI) are summed (Table 10). For an example calculation, we set DESA unit costs to the current prototype cost (USD 72 each) and show a total fixed cost of USD 107,842 and a depreciation cost of USD 5812, i.e., ~5% of the Investment cost.
Annual operating costs were also tabulated. A 2% repair and maintenance charge for DESA was assigned. The total fuel expenditure (electricity reported as KWH) is USD 29.61 per ha. There are no costs associated with repairs and maintenance of the power delivery. The sum of annual costs (fixed and operating costs) for DESA was computed to be USD 13,169 (USD 399.06/ha). This is 1.1% higher than the USD12,104 (USD 366.79/ha) cost of the conventional center pivot without DESA.

4. Conclusions

This work illustrates the potential of open, inexpensive, networked hardware to combine with modern precision agriculture through the DESA example. The DESA example was chosen to explore its potential and to determine if such an approach was worthy of further experimentation and refinement. We conclude that it is. DESA makes nozzle-level information and adaptive control possible with off-the-shelf components and a component an assembly costing USD 72. DESA could become economically viable, as shown in the analysis above, in scenarios of higher water cost and climates with multiple annual growing seasons.
Additional DESA benefits, not considered in the economic calculations, could further increase its value and potential. For example, the information and data gathered by the DESA system may also have value to growers as it can be used to create dynamic maps of canopy growth throughout the growing season which could be used to identify locations of reduced productivity. DESA could also adapt to the presence of multiple crop canopies in a single field if a diverse planting layout or intercropping approach were strategically advantageous. Additional economic savings associated with chemigation may also be anticipated. The combination of these potential benefits and the scenario-dependent water savings indicate that DESA is an irrigation approach worthy of future investigation.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, C.H., H.A.A.-a., and D.M.M.; methodology, H.A.A.-a., and D.M.M.; software, H.A.A.-a., and D.M.M.; validation, H.A.A.-a., and D.M.M.; formal analysis, C.H., H.A.A.-a. and D.M.M.; investigation, H.A.A.-a.; resources, C.H.; data curation, H.A.A.-a., and D.M.M.; writing—original draft preparation, H.A.A.-a., D.M.M., and C.H.; writing—review and editing, H.A.A.-a., D.M.M., C.H., and L.N.; visualization, C.H., H.A.A.-a. and D.M.M.; supervision, C.H., and L.N.; project administration, C.H.; funding acquisition, C.H. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by US National Science Foundation NSF-GEO 1740082 and NSF- GEO 1712532.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Data attached.


The work was supported by Al-Qasim Green University and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Iraq through a government scholarship. Partial funding was provided by NSF-GEO 1740082. The authors would like to thank Kyle Proctor and Linda Brewer for reviewing a paper and Greyston Brady, Pre-Elect and Computer Engineer; Luke Goertzen and Bao Nguyen, coding developers at Opens Lab, BEE for assistance on code development, sensor assembly, and 3-D printing at Oregon State University for their help during the laboratory tests.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Snapshot for DESA designed and tested with all components to rotate hosepipe back and forth connected with an electronic board assembly with circuits.
Figure 1. Snapshot for DESA designed and tested with all components to rotate hosepipe back and forth connected with an electronic board assembly with circuits.
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Figure 2. Prototype cost breakdown by component.
Figure 2. Prototype cost breakdown by component.
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Table 1. Infrastructure and Initial Investment Cost.
Table 1. Infrastructure and Initial Investment Cost.
Item Unit Quantity Cost/Unit Total per haQuantityCost/Unit (USD)Total CostUSD per ha
Power service12000200060.61
8 inch PVC pipe and fittings (feet)10007.207200218.18
Sprinkler System (5 towers = 50 m * 5 = 250 m)152,54352,5431592.21
Pump motor, 40 HP115,00015,000454.55
Bore well127,50027,500833.33
Total investment cost USD 104,243USD 3158.88
Table 2. Irrigation water lost by wind draft during an irrigation event from the center pivot irrigation method.
Table 2. Irrigation water lost by wind draft during an irrigation event from the center pivot irrigation method.
Areas (ha)Water Loses by Wind Draft (m3)
per season for 33 ha990011,88013,860
Table 3. Water-saving during irrigation event by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation.
Table 3. Water-saving during irrigation event by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation.
Areas (ha)Fraction of Wind Drift Reduced by DESA (m3)
per season per 33 ha148529704851445565349009
Table 4. Irrigation water price lost by wind drift during an irrigation event in center pivot irrigation.
Table 4. Irrigation water price lost by wind drift during an irrigation event in center pivot irrigation.
Area (ha)Irrigation Water Price Lost by Wind Draft
USD 0.01
per season for 33 ha49.5059.4069.30
USD 0.01
per season for 33 ha99.00118.80138.60
USD 0.02
per season for 33 ha198.00237.60277.20
USD 0.10
per season for 33 ha990.001188.001386.00
Table 5. Irrigation water price saving by the DSEA design during an irrigation event.
Table 5. Irrigation water price saving by the DSEA design during an irrigation event.
Area (ha)Irrigation Water Price Saving by Using a DESA Design
USD 0.005
per season for 33 ha7.4314.8524.26
USD 0.01
per season for 33 ha14.8529.7048.51
USD 0.02
per season for 33 ha29.7059.4097.02
USD 0.10
per season for 33 ha148.50297.00485.10
USD 0.005
per season for 33 ha22.27532.6745.045
USD 0.01
per season for 33 ha44.5565.3490.09
USD 0.02
per season for 33 ha89.1130.68180.18
USD 0.1
per season for 33 ha445.5653.4900.9
Table 6. Irrigation water price lost by wind drift during an irrigation event in center pivot irrigation affected by climate change.
Table 6. Irrigation water price lost by wind drift during an irrigation event in center pivot irrigation affected by climate change.
Area (ha)Irrigation Water Price Lost by Wind Drift
USD 0.15
per season for 33 ha1485.001782.002079.00
USD 0.20
per season for 33 ha1980.002376.002772.00
USD 0.25
per season for 33 ha2475.002970.003465.00
Table 7. Irrigation water price saving by a DSEA design during an irrigation event with climate change.
Table 7. Irrigation water price saving by a DSEA design during an irrigation event with climate change.
Area (ha)Irrigation Water Price Saving by a Using DESA Design
USD 0.15
per season for 33 ha222.75445.50727.65
USD 0.20
per season for 33 ha297.00594.00970.20
USD 0.25
per season for 33 ha371.25742.501212.75
USD 0.15
per season for 33 ha668.25980.11351.35
USD 0.20
per season for 33 ha8911306.81801.8
USD 0.25
per season for 33 ha1113.751633.52252.25
Table 8. Irrigation water saving per season at three percentage assumptions for water-saving by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation at different water prices.
Table 8. Irrigation water saving per season at three percentage assumptions for water-saving by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation at different water prices.
SeasonThe Total Irrigation Water Price Saving Per Season with a DESA Design
USD 0.01USD 0.01USD 0.02USD 0.10
USD 0.005USD 0.01USD 0.02USD 0.1
Table 9. Irrigation water saving per season at three percentage assumptions for water-saving by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation at different water prices with climate change in the future.
Table 9. Irrigation water saving per season at three percentage assumptions for water-saving by using a DESA design with center pivot irrigation at different water prices with climate change in the future.
SeasonThe Total Irrigation Water Price Saving Per Season with a DESA Design
USD 0.15USD 0.20$0.25
USD 0.15USD 0.20USD 0.25
Table 10. Economic analysis of a CPD-based irrigation system featured with the sensor assembly.
Table 10. Economic analysis of a CPD-based irrigation system featured with the sensor assembly.
ParticularsInvestment CostSalvage ValueUseful Life YearsDepreciation (1)Interest(2) (8.5%)Tax and Insurance (3) (1.4%)Total (1 + 2 + 3) DITITotal Per ha
Power serviceUSD 2000USD 0.0010USD 200.00USD 85.00USD 14.00USD 299USD 9.06
8 inch PVC pipe and fittingsUSD 7200USD 0.0020USD 360.00USD 306.00USD 50.40USD 716USD 21.70
DESA module *USD 3599USD 0.0020USD 500.00USD 425.00USD 140.00USD 1065USD 32.27
Sprinkler System (5 towers)USD 52,543USD 0.0020USD 2627.15USD 2233.08USD 367.80USD 5228USD 158.42
Pump motor, 40 HPUSD 15,000USD 0.0020USD 750.00USD 637.50USD 105.00USD 1493USD 45.24
WellUSD 27,500USD 0.0020USD 1375.00USD 1168.75USD 192.50USD 2736USD 82.91
TOTAL FIXED COSTUSD 107,842 USD 5812.15USD 4855.33USD 869.70USD 11,537USD 350
Fuel No. of Hours/
Irrigation Event
Rated Horse PowerFuel Use (KWH/HP/hr)Fuel Cost (USD/KWH)# Irrigation EventsTotalTotal Per ha
Electricity 65.5400.746USD 0.1010USD 977USD 29.61
Repairs and MaintenanceInitial CostCost Factor
Power serviceUSD 20000.00% USD 0USD 0.00
DESA module *USD 35992.00% USD 72USD 2.18
USD 2.47
8 inch PVC pipe and fittingsUSD 72000.00% USD 0USD 0.00
Sprinkler System (5 towers)USD 52,5430.50% USD 263USD 7.97
Pump motor, 40 HPUSD 15,0002.00% USD 300USD 9.09
WellUSD 27,5000.00% USD 0USD 0.00
Labor2USD 10.00 USD 20USD 0.61
* The base case excludes the sensor modules.
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MDPI and ACS Style

AL-agele, H.A.; Mahapatra, D.M.; Nackley, L.; Higgins, C. Economic Viability of Ultrasonic Sensor Actuated Nozzle Height Control in Center Pivot Irrigation Systems. Agronomy 2022, 12, 1077.

AMA Style

AL-agele HA, Mahapatra DM, Nackley L, Higgins C. Economic Viability of Ultrasonic Sensor Actuated Nozzle Height Control in Center Pivot Irrigation Systems. Agronomy. 2022; 12(5):1077.

Chicago/Turabian Style

AL-agele, Hadi A., Durga Madhab Mahapatra, Lloyd Nackley, and Chad Higgins. 2022. "Economic Viability of Ultrasonic Sensor Actuated Nozzle Height Control in Center Pivot Irrigation Systems" Agronomy 12, no. 5: 1077.

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