Edmonton Journal: University of Alberta math whiz helps develop robotic sprinkler technology

Sprinklers miss a lot.

Sometimes extra water pools on the sidewalk, or a gust of wind splatters us with an unexpected wet surprise.

What many see as a minor nuisance, Calgary inventor Cam Cote saw as a challenge. In a time when people are becoming increasingly aware of the value of clean water and its conservation, he wanted to find a way to tell a sprinkler to water a patch of grass and nothing else.

“We’ve all seen where you’ll drive by, and they’ll be watering a big field, and it’s all over the road, and the parking lot. It’s blowing everywhere,” Cote said.

Enter Cote’s invention, Intelirain. He knew what he wanted to do with his super powerful sprinkler heads, but Cote wasn’t sure how to tell the sprinkler what to do.

Through the Mitacs Accelerate program, Cote met Yile Zhang, a post-doctoral researcher in mathematics and statistics at the University of Alberta, who is a whiz at programming machines.

When Zhang went looking for a mathematical solution spraying liquid into a specific shape, he found one didn’t exist.

Zhang designed an algorithm that takes into account the shape of the lawn, and the speed and direction of the wind, so a sprinkler head can adjust to conditions in real time.

A little mobile weather station placed near the grass measures wind speed and direction and transmits that information to a computer chip in the sprinkler head every three seconds via Wi-Fi.

The user punches the dimensions and shape of the grass into a mobile phone app, and the sprinkler’s chip calculates how hard to spray to get water there.

Zhang built a simulator on his laptop to test his formula before Cote took the sprinkler head for lab testing at Olds College. That early testing found watering the lawn with precision saved about 30 per cent of the water usually required by conventional sprinklers to cover the same area, Cote said.

He hopes that once the sprinkler is tested outdoors, where it will be able to counteract the wind, Intelirain will use only half the water a typical sprinkler system does.

With a grant from Alberta Innovates, Cote’s product is ready to hit the field.  This season, Sporting Kansas City is installing the Intellirain system on the four grass fields at Wyandotte Youth Soccer Complex. Intelirain will also be used for a City of Edmonton attraction, and on new ball diamonds at CFB Edmonton, he said.

If the quest for a perfectly efficient underground sprinkler system sounds like a First World problem, consider how important turf condition is in preventing injuries to athletes who play outdoors, Cote said.

Cote is also working with another U of A researcher to adapt the technology for use in agricultural irrigation. Given that agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply, even a 10 per cent improvement in irrigation efficiency could result be a huge boon for conservation, Cote said.

Whether it was finding Zhang, whose specialized skill set is like a “needle in a hay stack,” or collaborating on the sprinkler’s nozzle design with an expert from the oilsands industry, Cote is delighted at the expertise available in the province to develop green technologies.

“Alberta’s an exciting place to be innovative,” he said.

A commercial version of Intelirain for facilities such as golf courses and fields should hit the market this summer.

Janet French