Bob Coates

Bob Coates
The Promise of Precision Irrigation

Note: This interview was conducted in January 2014.

Update: April 2017:  Bob Coates was a winner in the “I am a UC entrepreneur” contest and was named one of 19 University of California entrepreneurs to meet and pitch some of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists at a special lunch hosted by UC President Janet Napolitano and Christine Gulbranson, UC’s SVP of innovation and entrepreneurship. Coates is the co-founder of SenseTerra, a startup dedicated to monitoring and control for the Outdoor Internet of Things. Check out his 30-second winning video.


Bob Coates completed his bachelor’s degree in biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis. For his senior design project, he designed and tested a system to monitor individual cow feeding habits at the university’s dairy.

“This was the start of my interest in precision agriculture,” he says. “I completed a master’s degree with Professor Michael Delwiche at UC Davis by exploring ideas for precision irrigation in orchards.”

Today, as an associate development engineer in UC Davis’ Biological & Agricultural Engineering Department, he continues to work with Dr. Delwiche. Their project: An affordable, long-range, wireless network that grants farmers data to allow them to use inputs more precisely, saving time, money and other resources.

What is important about your project—and where do you hope to take it?

The world around us is becoming more connected. In the many years I’ve worked in this field,  technology has improved dramatically and prices have fallen. Battery-powered wireless networks can measure almost anything in our environment. With the “Internet of things” gaining momentum and a drought in California, the time is right for a more affordable, customizable, cloud-connected wireless network solution for precision agriculture and environmental monitoring.

What are you most passionate about in your research/work?

I love technology, but not just for technology’s sake. There are so many interesting problems to be solved, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have worked with Dr. Michael Delwiche for many years on a variety of research projects. I have also formed many professional relationships, including those with my team members on this project. Each day I look forward to working on technologies that can make a positive difference for growers and the environment.

How will the seed funding help you advance your project and move it closer to market?

The university is a fantastic place to explore new ideas and engage in research. Sometimes, though, good ideas are put on the shelf at the end of a project. Seed funding has allowed us to build units for extended field testing, check compatibility with additional sensors and explore improved enclosure designs. SATIC has opened the door to many additional entrepreneurship resources. I am excited that this work could lead to a business opportunity. 

What was the most important lesson learned at the Ag Innovation Entrepreneurship Academy?

The most important lesson I learned was “It’s the network, stupid!” Dr. Hargadon did a wonderful job reminding us each day of the academy that entrepreneurship is less about a great idea and more about using what and who you know to bring a “breakthrough” product to market. Leveraging existing ideas and building a network of colleagues, contacts and customers in a variety of fields is the best way to ensure that you will have the resources you need to succeed.

This project is funded by a grant from the Economic Development Administration’s i6 Challenge under the Sacramento Region Clean AgTech Innovation Center Development Project, Award No. 07 79 06923. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendation are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Agency or the U.S Department of Commerce .