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‘Sensors Will Profoundly Change Agriculture Decision-Making’

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, it paved the way to the explosion in smartphone technology that has integrated the devices into everyday life.

A driving force behind this technological revolution is the sensor. In many cases, these sensors are part of a microelectromechanical system (MEMS), which allows for data transduction and facilitates data processing at a microscopic level. Wonder how your cell phone has shrunk since your first bag phone, all while adding many more tasks? Thanks, in part, goes to MEMS technology.

Agriculture has enjoyed the benefits of this technology. Examples include drones and satellites capturing crop data while flying over a field; distributed irrigation systems spatially monitoring and delivering precise water and fertilizer levels saving thousands of dollars; and GPS-equipped tools providing tremendous reductions in time, fuel, and consumables.

“Key technological advances have driven the development of smaller, more robust, and more cost-effective sensors. As a result, new market vertical opportunities are emerging, including those for agricultural applications,” says Frank Shemansky, chief technology officer for SEMI, MEMS & Sensors. “In the past 10 years, sensor proliferation for new-use cases has been impressive.”

Experts continue to refine sensor technology that can detect air and water quality, soil pH, plant health, and even product ripeness.

“I have worked in the sensor industry for more than 25 years and have been amazed by how pervasive the deployment of MEMS and sensor technology has become,” says Shemansky. “From a few select automotive applications to dozens of sensors in everyone’s pocket and eventually to thousands of sensors in every farmer’s field.”

Recently, Senet and Sensoterra BV announced a multiyear partnership in which Sensoterra’s soil-moisture system will operate on Senet’s standards-based Low Power Wide Area Network.

Sensoterra’s sensors are rugged, self-sustaining, low cost, and wireless, which allows them to operate on a wireless network infrastructure in demanding conditions.

Farmers use the sensors to gain real-time insight into soil-moisture conditions. Data can be used to improve crop performance, boost yields, and maximize efficiencies. Sensors can be installed in a matter of minutes, and data is viewable online less than one hour after installation.

“To make the technology work, sensors must be low cost, easy to install, and last for long periods of time in the field. Only these characteristics will allow growers to scale their deployments and benefit from true operational visibility,” says Jurriaan Ruys, CEO of Sensoterra. “By operating our solution on Senet’s network, we are able to achieve our cost and performance thresholds, which could not be achieved with other network technologies.”

Andy Nadler, product manager, weather, for Farmers Edge, says the lower cost of sensor technology, combined with increased connectivity, has been a boon to the industry as well as a tremendous benefit to producers. 

“Producers once had to rely on weather data from a centralized station that could be 20 to 30 miles away,” Nadler says. “That information is almost useless when they get to the field level.”

Sensors can now be positioned in a variety of places – in the field, on the field border, on tractors, on the irrigation system – to provide accurate data for making decisions. “We can put sensors to gather data just about anywhere. We are now able to monitor at the micro level,” Nadler says.

With the advent of better communications technology, these sensors can share information, providing producers instant information. “Improved cellular coverage has really enabled this technology to move forward. Newer communications technology, like low power wide area networks (LPWAN), show the potential to improve connectivity even further,” Nadler says.

“Better radio technology for connectivity and the very low price for which we can offer the sensor are key drivers that have allowed sensor technology to reach agriculture,” says Bas van der Velden, sales director for Sensoterra. “In the coming years, other types of sensors will become available for lower prices, as well. In combination with low-power radio networks, it will lead us to a farming environment where farmers get more data as their entire farms become interconnected.”

Only part of the puzzle

As sensor technology moves forward, there is one critical aspect for agriculture: the underlying computer algorithms that take the streams of data collected by the sensors and make sense of it all.

“As sensors improve, we are collecting more and more data, and better data,” says Greg Emerick, executive vice president of business development for Sentera. “What we do is find out what data is being collected and perform algorithms on every pixel in every image. This helps agronomists and advisers interpret the data and recommend inputs and actions.”

For instance, a drone will fly over a field with a multispectrum sensor and collect information. It’s then up to the software to interpret what the data means. Too much nitrogen? Pest pressure? Stand count too low?

With remote sensor development, the work starts with first interpreting the data the sensor collects in a greenhouse or during a small-scale experiment. Researchers correlate the data with what is happening to the plant. After that, they move to the field for large-scale experiments to ensure their algorithm works. Sounds simple, but fields and growing conditions can vary significantly from day to day and even year to year. These algorithms must take that information into account. 

“Building a collection tool like a sensor is relatively easy, but the variables when it comes to crops and growing conditions are very complex,” Emerick says. “Sensors are simply a way to collect data faster and more efficiently.”

The amount of data collected can be vast. “The ag industry is evolving from 40 decisions in a lifetime to continuous improvement throughout the season,” Emerick says. “With the help of sensor data, advisers are making recommendations, and growers are making decisions throughout the season to improve production and profitability due to the data we are collecting.”

Also, the sensors are getting smarter. Because of MEMS, sensors can now do basic computational data and provide direct results. So instead of a sensor sending a photo that must further be analyzed to determine a stand count, the sensor performs the analytical calculation and sends the result back to the user or into the cab of a tractor.

“There are countless applications for sensors and analytics. We have cheaper tools at our disposal. Armed with this data, we can help producers make even better, more informed decisions to help them be more efficient, profitable, and better stewards,” Emerick says. “Over the next 10 years, sensors will profoundly change agriculture decision-making.”

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