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WSL spin-off hits the air with revolutionary moisture detection

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The Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL launches its first-ever spin-off company, selling a groundbreaking water-detection device. The drone-carried instrument is a cost-effective alternative to satellite and ground-based moisture measurements to support, amongst others, smart farming, wildfire detection or glacier monitoring. The new firm is the result of many years of L-band microwave research at WSL.


Be it drying farmland, melting glaciers, increasingly frequent wildfires or costal cities threatened by sea level rise: How can we understand changes in water availability and find mitigation strategies? 


A WSL team has developed a drone-borne instrument that provides cost-effective high resolution data on farmland, glaciers, wildfires, and coastal infrastructures that are directly sensitive to water. While satellite-based earth observation technologies are a great help in monitoring our changing planet, there is a limit to what can be inferred from a distance of more than 500 km. Similarly, ground-based single-point sensors can only provide a limited amount of data, as they are unable to capture spatial information.  


The specific L-band (21 cm wavelength) electromagnetic frequency is highly sensitive to liquid water. With the help of radiometers, specialists can detect water deep within soil, snow, and ice. The microwave remote sensing group at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL has been developing and improving radiometers since 1995. With their large ground-based devices, the WSL engineers first helped gauge NASA and ESA satellite measurements within the SMOS-Project. In 2019, they developed a more compact version which was operated during a year in the Arctic Sea in the MOSAiC expedition. Finally, the group was able to miniaturise the device to the point where it was light and small enough for being carried by a drone.



Possible applications for the sensor include optimizing irrigation and yield prediction for agriculture, monitoring glacier hydrology, mapping and risk assessment for wildfire, and identification of leaks within levees and dams. 


The new company: TerraRad Tech

TerraRad Tech AG, the WSL’s first ever spin-off company, will now commercialise the drone-borne microwave radiometer. The founders consider the AgriTech market as the highest business case. In arid regions such as Australia, the Western US, Israel, and high-value irrigated crops globally, optimal use of irrigation and increased yield-per-area will be required to feed the growing population. TerraRad provides possibilities not previously within reach of satellite sensors, drone-borne infrared (IR) or visible mapping systems.

Christoph Hegg, acting director of WSL, says “We are very pleased that our many years of research and projects in the field of microwave remote sensing have resulted in a groundbreaking product. The new company will act independently, but the ongoing collaboration with WSL will help to continuously optimize and further develop microwave remote sensing systems".