Verizon’s ThingSpace Helps Winemaker Track Soil Conditions

By Claire Swedberg

Hahn Family Wines is testing the new solution to track the moisture level of its vineyard soil, via wireless sensor probes and gateways to aggregate that sensor data and forward it to a cloud-based server, where that information is managed and analyzed.

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California winery Hahn Family Wines is testing an Internet of Things solution provided by Verizon to measure environmental conditions at its vineyard and create analytics to manage water and occasional chemical use for optimal grape harvests. By using wireless sensors and a cellular-connected gateway, the winery can collect data regarding the soil and air that could enable the winery to prevent vine disease, recognize when there is too much or too little water, and ultimately not only improve the health of plants, but also lower operating costs.

Verizon’s ThingSpace platform is intended to help developers or end users create applications using Verizon 4G connections to transmit sensor data back to a ThingSpace cloud-based server. ThingSpace includes application programming interface (API) simulators and developer kits to enable developers to create a sensor-based network, simply. ThingSpace, launched commercially last month, is designed for use in a variety of applications, including monitoring machines at manufacturing sites, tracking electric vehicles for colleges and universities, and keeping tabs on the environment around pharmaceutical products in the supply chain.

To transmit its measurements, each moisture sensor is wired to a Banner Engineering SureCross 900 MHz radio.

Hahn Family Wines worked with Verizon to develop its own system, consisting of Sentek Technologies‘ battery-powered moisture sensors inserted into the soil in which grapes are growing, as well as a weather station to measure air temperature and other conditions, a water meter at the water pump, and two Intel IoT gateways that aggregate data from the sensors. The gateways forward the collected information to a cloud-based server, hosted by Verizon, via a cellular connection.

“Verizon’s agriculture IoT platform is designed to gain insights to provide actionable intelligence at a block level,” says Kevin Welsh, Verizon’s IoT product manager for agriculture. For example, a block on a multi-acre farm is defined as six acres. Growers can collect sensor data for each block and make the necessary corrections to watering or the spraying of herbicides or fungicides, in order to improve the plants’ health and yield. “Analyzing data at a block level is designed to result in a more consistent crop yield,” he explains, “while also reducing inputs needed, such as disease control or irrigation, to maintain the vineyard or farm.”

At Hahn Family Wines, a single gateway is installed on the weather station, while another is located at the water-pump station. To transmit its measurements, each moisture sensor is wired to a Banner Engineering SureCross 900 MHz radio.

The winery had already been using Sentek soil-moisture sensors for years, says Paul Clifton, Hahn Family Wines’ winemaker. However, those older deployments required that each sensor have its own dedicated gateway. Therefore, the winery could afford to install only one sensor per 100 acres, due to the cost of the hardware. That made it difficult to understand what was happening in the vineyard acre by acre, he says, since it would be unfeasible to put a sensor and gateway at every acre.

The ThingSpace system, Clifton concluded, would offer greater data granularity, enabling Hahn to know which sections of the vineyard require watering, as well as how much water would be needed. “We could better target our irrigation,” he says. This data has become even more important following a year of draught in California. Clifton notes that many growers, whether of grapes or other crops, are using more water than they need to, just to make sure their crops don’t go dry. Traditionally, Hahn Family Wines irrigated its grapes on a calendar basis. This could lead to workers using too much water at times, he adds, and not enough at others.

So with the ThingSpace solution, Hahn Family Wines has installed one wireless sensor for every six acres within a 30-acre area. If the system proves effective, Clifton says, the wine company plans to expand its use to the remainder of the vineyard.

Hahn Family Wines’ Paul Clifton

For the pilot, the wine company decided to test not only soil-moisture sensors, but also a weather station for measuring solar radiation, wind velocity, humidity and temperature in the air above the vine-canopy level. That data provides the company with information that it can use to prevent disease, such as botrytis—a form of rot that can result from heavy rain or condensation on the grape or plant. Botrytis can be prevented via a fungicide spray, but the company does not want to use such a spray unless it is deemed necessary.

Each sensor captures data at preset intervals and wirelessly sends the results to the gateways, which then forward that information to the dedicated site on the ThingSpace server. The server is accessible only by authorized Hahn personnel.

The ThingSpace system makes that data available on a dashboard, with graphs and analytics over time, depending on a particular user’s need. For instance, Hahn can check the information in real time or collect data that will show the soil’s conditions on a daily basis, which can then be compared against harvest yields. Clifton says Hahn needs to complete a growing season with the new technology before he can verify its effectiveness, but he likes the fact that he can collect all of his sensor data in one place. In addition, he has installed a meter on the watering system to measure how much water is being pumped, and then compare that information against the soil-moisture sensor results. In that way, the winery could learn exactly how much water is required to reach the optimum soil-moisture level.

The data culled from the weather station could also be compared against the soil-moisture conditions, to help the company measure how weather conditions affect the soil.

The moisture and weather sensors were installed in early October, at the end of the growing season. According to Clifton, it will take a full year to measure the gains from the system.