IRRIGATION SYSTEM YIELDS INDUSTRY ACCOLADES

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TORONTO — Colin Austin has visions of deserts blooming and ruined farmlands coming back to life.

The winner of the Society of Plastics Engineers' 1997 engineering and technology award has co-developed a system of collapsible plastic pipe and computer-controlled irrigation technology. Now in test plots in Australia, it could go commercial in a big way in the southern country's next summer.

Austin dubs the technology ``intelligent irrigation,'' since it delivers the correct amount of water directly to plant roots when they need it. Sensors in soil measure moisture levels and relay the information to a computer. When plants need water the computer activates a pump, sending water through miles of plastic pipe buried under the soil in rows.

``Australia has enormous environmental problems,'' Austin said in an interview at SPE's Annual Technical Conference held April 28-May 2 after he received the Fred O. Conley Award.

A hundred years of inefficient irrigation has raised water tables and increased soil salinity in some areas.

Farm runoff from excess irrigation pollutes rivers and ocean reefs. He believes his intelligent irrigation program can prevent such harm by delivering just the amount of water crops need.

Austin said areas of the southwest United States are experiencing similar problems that intelligent irrigation can prevent. He hopes to find a U.S. partner to launch intelligent irrigation here next year.

Not just any plastic pipe will do for his technology, Austin said. Collapsible pipe allows soil aeration, benefiting roots.

Austin's pipe has flapper valves that close when water pressure is off, to discourage root growth into the pipe. He is trying to make pipe degradable after a specific time so farmers do not have disposal problems when they want to plow a field deeply.

If the technology takes off, there could be a huge market for such pipe.

Austin estimated 1 acre would need about 2 miles of pipe if it is laid 6 feet apart. An undisclosed processor is extruding demonstration quantities of pipe from a polyethylene blend.

Austin's partner in intelligent irrigation is Darryl Whitford, an electronics engineer who used his viniculture experience to develop soil-moisture measurement systems.

They formed Cohort International Pty. Ltd. of Montrose, Australia. Austin described the company as an ``intellectual property business'' that plans to franchise intelligent irrigation.

He conceded economics are a hurdle for widespread use of the technology. It now costs about A$4,000 (US$3,120) an acre, although costs would drop in high-volume component production. Return on investment would be high for cash crops such as vegetables and flowers but the payoff could take years for wheat or corn fields. Environmental concerns, which are hard to quantify, could justify the investment.

Intelligent irrigation is a markedly different project for Austin, a pioneer in plastic flow simulation who founded Moldflow Pty. Ltd. of Kilsyth, Australia, in 1978.

He got into the field to use industrial control technology to address one of Australia's biggest environmental problems, inefficient and ineffective use of scarce water resources.

Austin left Moldflow in 1994, although he still acts as a consultant for the software firm. Based on his work, Moldflow developed intelligent injection molding control, which links computer simulation with actual molding machine control.