Water Content Innovation Involves Growing Pains
Months ago, I was reading about the tragic test-flight crash of the Virgin Galactic passenger rocket plane and noting that there was a lot of criticism of that company for it’s “risky space venture.” In the midst of the heartbreak I felt at the deaths of the two pilots, as an innovator, I can somewhat sympathize with the Virgin Galactic Company in the realization that historically, innovation has involved risk. If you think about airplane development in the early 1900’s, every year 20% of pilots died because of malfunctions on airplanes (“By the spring of 1917, the life expectancy of a British pilot was put at eight days.” Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower, p. 28). Today we worry about the safety of air travel much less because people were willing to go through years of painful learning, and because of that learning, we no longer use trains as our fastest transportation.
Thankfully, no one’s life is on the line with Decagon sensor innovation. However, similar to early airplanes and the new rocket plane, when we release an instrument that is completely new (like our circuit board water content sensors), there are occasional problems that are not accounted for in our extensive laboratory and field testing. In light of this, we are grateful for scientists who are willing to give us feedback in order to aid innovation and advancement of science and technology. Here is an example of how scientists became our collaborators in developing a new product that helped to advance their discipline.
In 2000 we made our first water content sensor where we put the circuit board on the sensor itself, rather than a data logger. In advance of its release, we made a version of the sensor that was flexible with the idea that it would have excellent contact by conforming to the soil. In theory, it looked great, but when it was put in the ground, the sensor flexed and popped the components off the circuit board. Thanks to testing feedback, we made more rigid, 20cm long sensors, and the components had no more trouble.
After this problem was solved, researchers loved the instrument but wanted shorter ones to put in greenhouse pots. So we made the shorter ones. Scientists then became concerned that the sensors were sensitive to salinity in higher electrical conductivity conditions. Coincidentally, components became available to raise the frequency to 70 MHz, which is much less sensitive to electrical conductivity. Thus, because scientists were willing to partner in the development process and learn with us, we have developed a sensor that is affordable, cutting-edge technology which advanced the discipline of soil science.
We love to partner with scientists in the pursuit of knowledge. A researcher at a conference once said to one of our scientists, “I hate your stuff…for the first couple of months. But then you guys take your lumps, make it better, and then I buy all your stuff.” He was saying this in jest because it certainly doesn’t happen with many of the products we release. But when it does, we appreciate the dedicated support of our scientist friends who enjoy learning along with us to make the same kind of advancement that helped the world move from trains to air, and now onward into commercial space travel.
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