Commercial printed circuit board (PCB) technology affords the realization of low-cost sensor probes for agricultural and horticultural applications. Plant growth can be optimized when the soil (in field crop applications) or the substrate (in greenhouse crop applications) properties can be measured and properly adjusted. Two important parameters are moisture content and electrical conductivity. Measuring moisture content allows the grower to better time irrigation for most efficient crop growth. Accurate moisture content measurement also allows the grower to apply sufficient irrigation volume for optimum plant growth while avoiding excessive irrigation volume. Likewise, measuring the electrical conductivity reveals useful information regarding ions in the soil or substrate, which can be used to optimize the application of plant nutrients or manage soil salinity.

Commercial soil probes are expensive, which limits their widespread use in commercial applications. PCB probes, on the other hand, can be very inexpensive and can quickly be redesigned to modify the form factor for different applications. These sensors make use of the materials and processes inherent in commercial PCB manufacturing, including the FR4 substrate, patterned Cu cladding and soldermask. The non-conductive E-glass FR4 substrate is used as the rigid backbone of the sensor probe. The patterned Cu cladding is used for electrodes and signal traces. The polymeric soldermask is used as a thin insulating and moisture barrier layer. With these materials, insulated fringing field sensors can be realized on the surface of the PCB to measure moisture content, while exposed metal pads on the surface can be used to measure electrical conductivity. Additionally, the PCB probe is directly compatible with the integration of any desired integrated electronic components. Furthermore, the turnaround time for a new PCB sensor design can be as little as 24 hours at modest cost, making this technology economically superior to traditional sensor technologies, such as silicon based MEMS, where it can take months to realize a new design and be very expensive.

A prototype sensor probe has been designed, fabricated and evaluated. Test data is analyzed, compared with test data from traditional sensor probes and presented.

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