Australian Growers, Cities Tracking Soil Conditions via LoRaWAN

By Claire Swedberg

A solution from telecom carrier National Narrowband Network aims to reduce water waste by up to 30 percent with Sensoterra probes and an app that provides real-time data and analytics about water use in growing fields, city parks and athletic fields.

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Australian telecommunications carrier National Narrowband Network (NNNCo) is offering its Asia-Pacific customers an Internet of Things (IoT)-based soil moisture monitoring solution employing Sensoterra‘s LoRaWAN sensor probes transmitting data via NNNCo’s network. The solution includes Sensoterra’s mobile app and NNNCo’s cloud-based software, where soil moisture data can be accessed in real time or for historical purposes. Alternatively, data can be routed to a customer’s existing platform, such as Microsoft IoT Hub.

The telecom company’s data platform, known as N2N-DL, is bundled with connectivity for customers, enabling them to aggregate data culled from the sensor probes, as well as from other devices and sources, such as weather services, in a single platform, according to Rob Zagarella, NNNCo’s CEO. The solution has been tested or deployed by Cane Growers Mackay and the City of Newcastle, in New South Wales, among other organizations.

NNNCo is a LoRaWAN network operator that offers metropolitan and regional coverage for IoT devices. Its networks are used by energy companies, smart cities and other IoT-based systems throughout Australia. Sensoterra is a two-and-a-half-year-old company that focuses on soil moisture intelligence, says Bas van der Velden, Sensoterra’s sales director. With the release this year of its wireless soil moisture monitoring solution with Sensoterra technology, NNNCo expects to drive down its customers’ water consumption by up to 30 percent, and to provide information that helps those customers make better land-management decisions.

Those using the technology are likely to be municipality “councils” (local governing bodies) and agriculture operations. Those customers can range from very small communities or farms to large-scale deployments in cities or by growers or livestock organizations. “It really varies,” Zagarella says, from a small council monitoring water usage in a few parks or ball fields to vast sugar cane operations, monitoring soil moisture at different crop sites across a region to optimize water input where it’s needed most.

Newcastle City Council, the largest regional council in New South Wales, could represent a wide-scale deployment. The city has piloted the system to view soil-moisture measurements across sites that it waters on a regular basis. Each Sensoterra wireless sensor is staked into the soil. The sensor collects data from the soil, and a built-in LoRaWAN radio sends moisture levels readings to a NNNCo gateway and then to the cloud-based server, via NNNCo’s LoRaWAN network.

The company’s software manages that data and can provide real-time alerts, as well as historical data for analytics purposes. The city can utilize the information to better schedule its irrigation so it can avoid overwatering, but also to better understand when additional watering is required.

The Cane Growers Mackay has been testing the probes as well. The association’s farmers have been inserting the sensors both into and around sugar cane crops. They can then view conditions from the planting to harvesting stages and thereby prevent overwatering, which could lead to unnecessary added cost and water waste.

Typically, Zagarella says, a customer would self-install the probes, using NNNCo’s technical support via phone and e-mail. In most cases, he adds, “We provide the connectivity and data platform to enable app providers to more easily provide the visualization and tools for the end customer.” However, the N2N-Vis platform also enables users to capture and view data from soil-moisture readings, integrated with information culled from other sensors or weather data, for instance. Companies are not currently integrating the data with their irrigation systems, van der Velden notes, though that functionality is in place in some deployments.

Typically, Sensoterra provides six to ten sensors per 120 acres, as well as a gateway to receive the devices’ LoRaWAN transmissions. The sensors can be used more or less densely, depending on the sensitivity and value of the crops being monitored. The greatest density of installations is currently in the Netherlands, where Sensoterra is headquartered. Approximately 60 percent of those deployments are agriculture-based, while the others are city irrigation systems.

Sensoterra’s app can provide intelligence, such as watering recommendations, or companies can provide data and analytics in their own software using the Sensoterra application programming interface (API). The technology could not only save farmers and cities the cost of overwatering, but also improve yields based on optimal soil conditions.

“In farming, you have 20 to 25 times per harvest to mess things up,” van der Velden says, “and only a couple of times to make up for a loss.” For that reason, he notes, growers are under pressure to be sure every decision, such as when to water or not water, is the right one. “The risks are so high,” he states, “it’s very important to make educated, well-informed decisions.”

The NNNCo deployments are some of the first installations for Sensoterra in that part of the world, van der Velden reports. “We started in the Dutch market with flower bulbs and potatoes,” he recalls, “but now we are moving into international markets.” To date, Sensoterra has undertaken deployments throughout 35 countries. The company is experiencing fast growth and expansion in the United States, he says, as well as in Europe and Asia.