LoRa Solution Offers Wireless View Into Soil Health

A handful of growers and other food companies are piloting a wireless sensor system from Teralytic that uses Semtech LoRaWAN chips built into sensor probes to capture and interpret data about a farm's soil conditions, including temperature, moisture and fertilizer levels.
Published: November 9, 2018

Soil sensor technology company Teralytic is leveraging long-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) sensors to provide growers, food companies and consumers with a view into the health of soil—and, subsequently, the crop growing in that soil—as part of a wireless solution. Since the probe was released this year, dozens of firms have been piloting the technology, with hundreds more currently in conversations with Teralytic.

The system, using LoRa radio chips provided by semiconductor company Semtech Corp., consists of a single probe with 26 built-in sensors that can capture, measure and report on soil moisture, salinity (the presence of salt), aeriation, respiration, pH and temperature at three different depths. The system also measures surface conditions, such as temperature, light and air humidity, and can detect the level of nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, to give farmers an indication of how much fertilizer or other soil additives they need to add.

Throughout the past half-century, farmers have typically taken manual yearly soil samples to obtain a snapshot of their soil’s health, says Steven Ridder, Teralytic’s CEO and founder. With his company’s solution, he explains, “This is the first time that technology allows growers to get visibility into the health of their soil [wirelessly] in 15-minute intervals.”

Teralytic’s Steven Ridder

Teralytic, founded in 2016, maintains offices in New York City and at the UC Berkeley Nanofabrication lab, and undertakes pilots of its wireless solution at a handful of sites around the world. The deployment rate is expected to scale up rapidly, Ridder says, with food brands, farmers, universities and government agencies now in discussions with the technology company to launch deployments. The Teralytic probe is shipped worldwide.

At the center of the solution is a LoRaWAN wireless network connection, operating at 868 MHz in Europe or 915 MHz in North America, to transmit soil-measurement data. The system includes cloud-based software that interprets that data and shares it with systems integrators, solution providers and end users. The goal, Ridder says, is to save resources for farmers—for example, by eliminating excess watering—and to enable quick decision-making based on measurement data, ultimately leading to higher crop yields. With climate change in mind, the system is designed to reduce waste and prevent agricultural runoff.

The probes perform sensor measurements at three levels: 6 inches below the surface, as well as at depths of 18 inches and 36 inches. That enables data capture regarding near-surface conditions, along with nutrient and water levels below the surface, where crop roots grow. They also allow growers to determine whether nutrients are leaching too deeply in the ground where they are of no use to plants. The sensors utilize the LoRa system to transmit information to a gateway, which forwards that data to the cloud via cellular or Ethernet connectivity, or via a satellite-enabled gateway, explains Patrick van Ejk, Semtech’s IoT solutions director.

“From day one,” Ridder says, “we were going to build a system with Semtech technology.” The LoRaWAN network it provides enables access to data across a wide space, he explains, without complex installation requirements. The solution comes with an open application programming interface (API). Organizations and companies can gain access to Teralytic’s cloud-based data and package it into their own solution for growers or other companies in the food industry.

The data can be customized to meet the needs of specific crops, and that is left in the hands of the systems integrator or solution provider. For instance, strawberries have a 70-day growth cycle and may require more frequent monitoring than some other crops. Additionally, certain crops may require more location-specific data. In some cases, Ridder says, the probes are installed across a span of one to every 2 to 10 acres, while in other scenarios, they can be dispersed every 30 to 50 acres.

The farmers own all their own data. The sensor-based system could be set up to be only privately available to a farmer, or it could be made publicly available to consumers or members of a food supply chain. With the solution, farmers can use the cloud-based software to view a map of their fields, the overall “Terascore” of their soil health and a breakdown of sensor measurements, including moisture and nutrient levels. They can then see a breakdown of measurements for each sensor, accessible either on a PC or on a cellular device via an app.

With the app, a tractor driver at the field could view information about the soil at his or her location, then adjust operations accordingly. Data is collected every 15 minutes, and farmers can use the solution to receive alerts based on specific conditions, such as more water or fertilizer being required.

“We started with a pilot in California with organic strawberries,” Ridder recalls, then moved into corn, alfalfa, nuts and other crops. Since Teralytic released its solution, he adds, potential end users have continued to create new use cases. That, in part, is due to companies having access to data farmers didn’t have before. While they typically only had an annual view into soil health, the additional data makes it possible to strategize ways to make crops healthier and with a higher yield throughout the season.

Since consumers hold food growers and governments accountable for the environmental footprint of crops, Ridder says, soil data is becoming much more critical. For instance, some governments regulate the amount of nitrogen a farm can have in its soil, and fine those that fail to adhere to such requirements. “With this data, they can show what is happening in their fields,” he says, to prove that the farm is complying with regulations.

Depending on transmission rates, the probes have a battery life of two to three years. The Teralytic probes cost about $500 each year. The lease includes all software and analytics, as well as sensor and battery replacement.