Design of an Ultrasound Sensing System for Estimation of the Porosity of Agricultural Soils

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The design of a readily useable technology for routine paddock-scale soil porosity estimation is described. The method is non-contact (proximal) and typically from “on-the-go” sensors mounted on a small farm vehicle around 1 m above the soil surface. This ultrasonic sensing method is unique in providing estimates of porosity by a non-invasive, cost-effective, and relatively simple method. Challenges arise from the need to have a compact low-power rigid structure and to allow for pasture cover and surface roughness. The high-frequency regime for acoustic reflections from a porous material is a function of the porosity ϕ, the tortuosity α∞, and the angle of incidence θ. There is no dependence on frequency, so measurements must be conducted at two or more angles of incidence θ to obtain two or more equations in the unknown soil properties ϕ and α∞. Sensing and correcting for scattering of ultrasound from a rough soil surface requires measurements at three or more angles of incidence. A system requiring a single transmitter/receiver pair to be moved from one angle to another is not viable for rapid sampling. Therefore, the design includes at least three transmitter/reflector pairs placed at identical distances from the ground so that they would respond identically to power reflected from a perfectly reflecting surface. A single 25 kHz frequency is a compromise which allows for the frequency-dependent signal loss from a natural rough agricultural soil surface. Multiple-transmitter and multiple-microphone arrays are described which give a good signal-to-noise ratio while maintaining a compact system design. The resulting arrays have a diameter of 100 mm. Pulsed ultrasound is used so that the reflected sound can be separated from sound travelling directly through the air horizontally from transmitter to receiver. The average porosity estimated for soil samples in the laboratory and in the field is found to be within around 0.04 of the porosity measured independently. This level of variation is consistent with uncertainties in setting the angle of incidence, although assumptions made in modelling the interaction of ultrasound with the rough surface no doubt also contribute. Although the method is applicable to all soil types, the current design has only been tested on dry, vegetation-free soils for which the sampled area does not contain large animal footprints or rocks.

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