Irrigation for Corn, Rice and Other Crops Managed via IoT

By Claire Swedberg

Cellurar networks hosted by AT&T enables PrecisionKing's solution for managing alternate wetting and drying methods on rice fields, as well as technology from WaterBit, to track soil moisture levels in a variety of crops.


In recent years, technology companies have been developing, testing and deploying a variety of Internet of Things (IoT)-based innovations that leverage cellular networks hosted by AT&T to capture and manage IoT data regarding what is happening on farm fields. The data enables not only automated responses, such as the powering on of irrigation, but also analytics to help farmers make crops more efficient, with higher yields and a reduction in water waste.

Soil moisture sensor technology company WaterBit, located in San Jose, Calif., helps farmers to understand and manage the irrigation in their fields, while a water-management system for farming solutions firm PrecisionKing provides technology to help rice farmers manage their crops with the demand to reduce excess water use.

Mobeen Khan

AT&T is providing its IoT network for use with technology to help companies reduce their carbon footprint. The system is part of the telecommunications company’s carbon abatement plan, known as 10x since it aims to enable carbon savings for its customers that are 10 times the footprint of AT&T’s own operations by 2025. Part of this effort is in smart farming, for which technology companies are using AT&T’s cellular network to forward data from fields, explains Mobeen Khan, the company’s assistant VP for Internet of Things solutions.

AT&T has been offering networking solutions for several decades that enable sensor- or other machine-based data to be collected remotely. It now has 38 million end devices to connect to an IoT network, he says, for fleet or asset tracking, equipment monitoring and health-care devices.

“The common thread is a secure network,” Khan says, that consists of a global subscriber identity module (SIM) to enable communication, an AT&T control center to manage data, and what is now more than 3,000 kinds of sensors that are certified for use on the network. AT&T sells full solutions to end users, as well as partnering with solutions providers.

In the case of agriculture, Khan says “Farming over the decades has been becoming more and more mechanized.” To manage the flow of data coming from fields, he adds, “Farmers have been coming to us, and we work with technology companies to help provide their solution.”

WhitakerFarms Manages New Rice Farming Method
Whitaker Farms, in Arkansas, is deploying an IoT system from Mississippi-based PrecisionKing as it transitions to a rice farming process known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD), which acts as an alternative to the traditional, constant 4-inch flood. Farmers allow fields to “dry down” between floods, decreasing the amount of water used. For farmers, it’s imperative for the fields to be monitored properly for AWD to work.

With the AWD method and the use of IoT technology, “We were trying to be more accurate with water measurements, and reduce labor,” says Jim Whitaker, the farm’s co-owner. Since AWD is a new practice to most growers, keeping up with the dry down is challenging without automation, that requires farm workers to manually monitor the water levels in the fields. “We usually physically check every field and pump every day,” Whitaker says.

Jim Whitaker

The PrecisionKing solution is designed to measure water in the field, and to automatically prompt the valves to open and prompt watering to take place when needed. Farmers can access the sensor data remotely, understand the conditions of the fields in real time and better manage conditions according to yields in the future. “Our systems allow them easy access to monitoring and scheduling,” says Nick King, PrecisionKing’s president. Farmers can set the perimeters according to the needs of their field.

The PrecisionKing system consists of a 4-inch PVC pipe sensor, with the pipe marked to indicate how deeply it should be buried. Users employ a shovel or post-hole digger to bury the pipe to the mark. “This allows the technology to measure above and below ground-water levels,” King says. “We then install a post for the RiceKing unit to attach to.” The RiceKing unit acts as a gateway, receiving sensor data and then forwarding it via cellular connections provided by AT&T. Later this year, PrecisionKing plans to offer its own Farm Networks cellular-based networks.

Then there’s pump valve automation. In most installations, King says, a single irrigation pump supplies approximately four rice fields. PrecisionKing installs RiceKing water level sensors in each field. The company also installs a ValveKing valve on all four of the hydrants (wells have underground pipes to each field, and the hydrant is the outlet through which the water comes out) in each field. “The grower will set parameter on each RiceKing unit that we call high and low trigger points,” King explains.

As the fields begin to use water and the water level begins to drop, a grower can remotely monitor this progression. If a farmer has set his low trigger to -2 water level underground, for instance, then a RiceKing unit, if it hits that low trigger, will send commands to turn the pump on and arrange the valves to open or close for the appropriate field, as needed. Once that field is pumped up to its high trigger, the RiceKing unit will send a command to cut the pump off.

“We started experimenting five years ago. Then I met Nick [King], and he has been able to exceed all my expectations,” Whitaker says. “The main benefit is having the ability to check my fields remotely. Then there is the labor reallocation. Last, but not least, is the accuracy of water use.”

Bowles Farming
Bowles Farming Co., located near Los Banos, in California’s Central Valley, is being managed by the sixth generation of the Bowles & Lawrence families. The company sought to use technology to better manage the irrigation of its crops and chose WaterBit.

Nick King

Without the technology, the farm employs a team of irrigators who physically move around the fields turning valves on and off. This team will now be refocused on more technical, higher-value activities, says Danny Royer, Bowles Farming’s VP of technology, “Bowles will realize significant efficiencies using WaterBit,” he states, “by being able to more effectively deploy people to higher-value activities and better manage its water needs.”

When the project started, Bowles Farming had acquired a variety of irrigation technology investments that were not being fully used, or even deployed. Therefore, they needed to assess the existing infrastructure, identify complementary technologies and deploy solutions that provided a benefit to their operations.

The farm considered a variety of technology solutions, Royer says. “What struck us as both refreshing and unusual about WaterBit,” he recalls, “was that lots of other technology companies were trying to do too much, while WaterBit focused on doing one thing—soil moisture sensors—and doing it well.”

After working with vendors who provided technologies that were complex and difficult to navigate, the farm discovered how easy to use and intuitive the WaterBit system was. “With just a few clicks of a button,” Royer says, “we got what we needed.”

WaterBit was founded in 2015, when Manu Pillai, the firm’s co-founder and president, sought to apply technology to better manage water use. In early 2017, T.J. Rodgers, Cypress Semiconductor‘s founder and the chairman of WaterBit’s Board of Directors, helped to recruit Andrew Wright, the former executive VP of new product development at Cypress Semiconductor, to join as CEO. Since then, Wright says, WaterBit technology has been deployed across 10 farms in California, including Bowles Farming, which went live late last year.

The solution employs third-party capacitive soil-moisture probes to detect soil-moisture content. Once the probe is installed in the ground, the sensor is connected to a Carbon node, a solar-powered micro-power device that lacks batteries and can operate under the canopy, where it will not interfere with farm equipment. All Carbon nodes communicate with a WaterBit gateway installed within 1.5 miles of the nodes in an area using a long-range radio (LoRa) network.

Danny Royer

These small, solar-powered nodes connect not only to soil-moisture probes, but also to pressure sensors and flow integrators, which collect data that monitor the flow of water in the irrigation equipment to detect leakage and irrigation distribution issues. Additionally, WaterBit’s wireless primary control valves can be retrofit to most hydraulically actuated valves, in order to turn water off and on. This allows farmers to monitor soil, climate and crop conditions, and to automate irrigation to optimal levels.

The node is placed along the drip irrigation line and stays out of the way of farm activities. The gateway, known as WaterBit Connect, serves as a farm-scale networking device that provides bi-directional communication to allow sensor data to be received and acted upon, while also receiving irrigation instructions from the system when completed by farm personnel.

LoRa is well suited for WaterBit’s products, Wright says, because it is power-efficient “and it enables us to reliably communicate with devices over long distances.” Once the data has been transmitted to the gateway, the gateway sends the data to the WaterBit cloud application. The WaterBit Dashboard provides real-time access to analytics and data that help farmers make decisions, create irrigation schedules, monitor irrigation events and comply with regulations.

WaterBit installed three gateways at Bowles Farming that cover approximately 40 percent of the land, Wright says. WaterBit’s primary control valve is a device that retrofits an existing valve, enabling the existing unit to be controlled from the cloud. “Our valve control is currently installed on 15 [irrigation] blocks that cover several hundred acres,” Wright adds.

Using WaterBit and its IoT-based technology, Bowles can view in real time if there is a more immediate need for water, or if moisture levels have already been achieved, and can make daily adjustments to the schedules accordingly. In the future, Wright envisions that WaterBit data will help to create a “live canal” that will adjust water delivery in real time, based upon fluctuating demand and soil sensor data from WaterBit in concert with other technologies used by Bowles.

It began with the farm’s corn field, in part because corn posed the greatest challenge. “Corn is a difficult crop from an RF perspective,” Wright says, “because it is very dense.” As the corn grew, the company was able to monitor the signal strength on its Carbon nodes and see the impact that the corn stalks were having on the signal.

Andrew Wright

“We were able to compensate for the impact of the corn by raising our gateway,” Wright says. Another unique issue they ran into at Bowles (and other farms) was a matter of wildlife mischief. Coyotes and other animals seem to enjoy chewing on cables, he says. “We’ve lost several devices to cable chewing vermin. To solve this issue, we now install our devices with a metal sheath that provides protection for the cable.”

Bowles Farming is still in the data-gathering phase of its deployment, Royer says. “In fact,” he adds, “we’ve used WaterBit to gather baseline data on soil-moisture levels and correlate that with crop yields.” In the past, Royer says, this was accomplished manually, so now he says, “we get a better sense with sensors” in assessing the water needs of the crops.

Moving into the 2018 season, Royer says, WaterBit will be used to make real-time irrigation decisions for other crops in the typical Bowles rotation, and will also be instrumental in assessing water needs for new crops like watermelon and garlic, for which the company needs to gather baseline data The farm mostly produces annual crops with a focus on tomatoes (processing and fresh), melons, extra-long staple cotton, alfalfa and more.

The system provides a competitive advantage for the farm, Royer adds. “Bowles will realize significant efficiencies using WaterBit by being able to more effectively deploy people to higher-value activities and better manage its water needs.”