In the U.K., Pollinating IoT for Agriculture

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Through Agri-Tech East, a one-year-old member organization focused on bringing growers and technologists together to improve the agricultural output in the East of England, farmers are starting to tap into the Internet of Things.

Throughout the United Kingdom, farmers and ranchers are facing a number of challenges, ranging from an expected increase in flooding events, linked to climate change, to tighter government controls on the types and quantities of pesticides and other chemicals they can apply to crops.

Belinda Clarke

But technology can help these producers respond to these changes while still improving yield, Belinda Clarke believes. Clarke directs Agri-Tech East, a membership organization that formed last year to create a hub for entrepreneurs, established companies and researchers to connect with producers and agricultural groups that could benefit from technological approaches to improving resource management and business processes. Members include investor groups focused on the agriculture industry, agricultural purchasing cooperatives and industry groups, plant research laboratories and a number of technology providers whose products are designed to help farmers reduce reliance on chemicals, improve crop management and access real-time sensor data collected on their farms.

Agri-Tech East's goal, Clarke says, is to bring together farmers who are seeking answers with technologists who are offering solutions, but it's not about technology for technology's sake. "We're building a network, brokering connections, making sure [vendors] don't make solutions to problems that don't exist," she explains.

Agri-Tech East holds regular "Pollinator" events to discuss specific topics. Late last month, at an IoT-focused Pollinator, members interested in or already deploying Internet of Things technologies met to share their experiences and findings.

Low Power, Long Range
At the meeting, Gary Atkinson, the director of emerging technologies at chipmaker ARM, made a pitch for the applicability of low-power wide area networks (LPWANs) for agricultural use cases. LPWAN sensors can transmit over long distances while using less power and at a lower cost than systems relying on cellular networks. Atkinson spoke specifically about Weightless, an LPWAN specification that supports data transmissions of 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) or better, with a sensor battery life of 10 years and IC costs of around $2 apiece. The Weightless specification is being developed in a number of iterations designed for use in different frequency bands. At the Pollinator event, Weightless-N, which operates in the ISM frequency bands—specifically, 868 MHz in Europe and 915 MHz in the United States—was discussed.

Matthew Bailey, who directs international business development for NWave, which sells complete LPWAN solutions compliant with the Weightless-N specification, was also at the event. He says that after deploying its technology in a number of smart-city applications, such as sensor-monitored street parking, NWave is rolling out its technology for agricultural applications through a handful of on-farm pilot programs around the world. One strong advantage for LPWANs in agricultural settings is the radio signal's more reliable read distance compared with urban deployments, thanks to lower interference.

LPWAN radios can exceed 5 kilometers of read range in the city, Bailey says, based on the environment and the antenna's capability, but in an agricultural setting, that range is significantly longer. "If you mount [an NWave sensor] 120 feet high on a storage tank," he states, "you can get well over 10-kilometer read range."

While Bailey could not disclose many details regarding NWave's farm-based pilot projects, he says his company is pursuing one based in California and another in Georgia, which is entering its second year and is employing soil moisture sensors that transmit data to cloud-based software that then controls irrigation systems, in order conserve both water and energy. "We're saving energy by not having to pump as much water, and we're saving water [by reducing the amount applied to crops]," he says, predicting that a 40 percent water reduction is possible.

Better managing crops and ensuring that soil moisture levels are adequate also helps soil loss through erosion, Bailey adds.

Smart Pig Pegs
Agri-Tech East member company General Alert also presented its technology, which uses sensors to track water flow and other factors and then sends alerts to farmers when it detects any systems that are operating improperly.

David Welch, General Alert's owner, says his company evolved from a request from a customer who operates a pig farm in Holland. At the time, Welch's business was based mostly on the sale of water meters, but it was well before he had added any remote sensing capabilities to its product lineup.

The problem that the farmer faced was that his pigs had a habit of chewing the nozzle, which acts like a nipple, off the water spigot. As a result, the water would flow out unabated. Once the water hits the slurry pit, it would cost the farmer €18 ($19.43) per ton to pump out and treat the water. "The cost involved was phenomenal," Welch says.

The farmer asked Welch if he could use a sensor that would send him a text message whenever the nozzle was removed, so that he could fix the problem before the flooding became severe. Making that happen meant that Welch needed to develop a means of linking his flow sensors to cellular networks. After enabling that capability, Welch added a number of other sensors, including those for monitoring temperature, ammonia, oxygen, pH and carbon dioxide. Welch's customers set parameters for flow, temperature, gas levels and so forth, If the sensors detect that conditions have exceeded or fallen below these settings, General Alert sends them a text message noting the issue. The system can also be set up so that the farmer receives a summary text message at the end of each day, showing how much water has been consumed, providing temperature records and more.

At present, General Alert sells its sensor systems not just to farmers, but also to retailers, security services and science laboratories, among others. The basis of the technology is a base unit that contains 12 serial sensor ports, as well as a cellular modem, an Ethernet port and a 12-volt DC electrical socket. Using a daisy-chain configuration, however, those 12 sensor ports can accommodate up to 48 sensors. When deployed in places were 3G cellular networks are available, Welch says, the Ethernet port is used to connect the base unit to a 3G cellular router.

For now, most of the sensors Welch uses are not wireless—they are routed into the base unit via cables. However, Welch says he is currently seeking investors who will enable him to update to wireless sensors, which would make deploying the General Alert solution simpler.

A New Crop of Tech Workers?
According to Clarke, the farmers tend to seek the opinions of their peers before trying new things, and that includes investing in new technology. Whether the topic is IoT technology, taking new approaches to pest management or developing methods of making their operations more resilient to extreme weather, Clarke hopes that Agri-Tech East will provide a hub for information sharing and discovery among farmers.

"We're trying to provide opportunities for end users to inform each other," Clarke says, "and accelerate the journey of new innovations from the lab to the fields."

In summarizing the event, Clarke says: "A big challenge for the future will be changing perceptions, to encourage young engineers who think motor racing is an exciting career choice to consider the opportunities in agrifood instead. Perhaps a new job description is needed, describing the 'precision farming technician,' which will demonstrate the levels of complexities and new skills involved in harnessing IoT opportunities."