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Smartphone Apps Help Farmers Monitor, Manage Operations

Software and internet applications have enabled Darren Furbeck to perform an amazing variety of functions using his smartphone. Whether he is checking the markets, watching the weather, catching up on the latest news, or researching a product, the smartphone has become the preferred device to help the Missouri farmer stay connected with everything that goes on across the 2,500 acres he farms with his father. 

“With more than 30 apps on my smartphone, nine of which are just for weather, it has become an invaluable tool,” Furbeck says. “There is never a time I don’t have it on me.”

Every day a new app is uploaded into Google Play and iTunes, and its developers hope it will attract users. It seems there is an app for almost everything. For Furbeck, selecting which ones to download is all about trial and error. 

“If an app is free, I’m willing to try it out,” he explains. “If I can’t get the app to function the way I need it to in the first few tries, I simply delete it.”

If he does purchase an app, Furbeck says he wants to be able to try it out first to ensure it’s worth spending money on.

Beyond apps, his device has become a mobile file cabinet where he stores machinery manuals to keep at his fingertips. The phone’s built-in features are also proving to be an asset. 

“I never thought I would use the camera, but I use it all the time,” Furbeck says. “For example, when a tractor flashes a code, I take a picture so I can figure out what it is. If my wife runs to get a part, I take a picture of the part so both she and the dealership know exactly what I need. Little things like that make a big difference due to that camera.”

From apps that help Chris Chinn stay on top of markets and weather to an app that tracks the production of cattle and hogs, the smartphone allows this fifth-generation Missouri farmer to get her work done no matter where her busy schedule takes her.

“I am able to be more efficient because of my smartphone,” says Chinn, who is also the director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. “I am able to make better decisions, which, in turn, helps my family do a better job of caring for our livestock and our land.”

While she says apps that give her immediate access to production records of animals, allow her to send and receive faxes, or get remote access to the feedmill to resolve issues are really handy, Chinn, too, is realizing the benefits of the phone’s included components. 

“With a shortage of large animal vets in my area, the smartphone has been a tremendous help in maximizing a vet’s time,” Chinn explains. “If we’re not certain a cow needs to be seen, we’ll take a video or picture and send it to the vet. He can then tell us whether or not the animal needs to be seen.”

an evolving tool

It’s clear these handheld devices have become an invaluable tool for both Furbeck and Chinn. What if Furbeck could use his mobile device to determine the exact chemical content and quality of a plant or soil in a field? What if Chinn’s smartphone could help her define how much nitrogen is in a certain part of the field?

By developing NeoSpectra Micro, a chip-scale spectrometer, Si-Ware Systems is working to equip farmers with the technology to do those tasks and more. Typically, a spectrometer is a major piece of lab equipment that sheds near-infrared light on the surface of an object to determine its molecular composition. The Egypt-based company has reduced this powerful technology into an affordable, compact version that can soon be integrated into a smartphone by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). A current demonstration unit incorporates the device into a smartphone case.

“Through the use of a smartphone app, the NeoSpectra Micro directs a near-infrared light source at the sample, and a detector in the unit captures the light-based signature of the sampled materials in the form of wavelengths,” says Scott Smyser, executive vice president, Si-Ware Systems. “The signature is instantly compared with an online database to identify the materials. The device also provides the amount of materials detected.”

The technology can be applied to the following farm applications.

  • Soil composition analysis
  • Readiness/ripeness/spoilage of produce, such as fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, or meat
  • Presence of chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides in soil, water, and produce
  • Presence of gasses, such as methane, volatile organic compounds, indoor air quality, and ventilation
  • Beverage quality control, such as cider, milk, cream
  • Biomass, biofuel analysis, and quality control
  • Nutrient/feed analysis for consistent livestock diets

analyzing soil 

The NeoSpectra Micro builds on the popularity of a larger, but still compact, version of the NeoSpectra spectrometer for portable use that has already been deployed in Europe for soil analysis. 

“We have a customer in the Netherlands, SoilCares, that has developed a NeoSpectra-based portable soil scanner that determines nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium content while also indicating the pH, electrical conductivity, soil temperature, and organic matter level,” Smyser says. 

It then generates recommendations on crops that are most suited to your soil, as well as lime and fertilizer recommendations. 

“There has been subsequent interest in a variety of ag-based applications, and we are working with some of the tier-one ag companies on in-field and on-equipment systems,” says Smyser. 

Pesticide identification is also high on the company’s list, especially in the wake of recent testing showing glyphosate in popular foods and traces of pesticides in organic produce.

“This is a highly important tool in the precision agriculture tool kit,” he says. “The end result is better data that can enable higher soil quality, improved produce and product consistency, fewer contaminants, and higher safety levels.”

digital knowledge 

Smartphones are also arming consumers with vast amounts of digital knowledge. Equipped with this newfound information, they are demanding more transparency from the products they purchase. Spectroscopy has the capacity to give consumers a detailed analysis of the ingredients in their food.

“From a consumer perspective, handheld spectrometers will be responsible for a large jump in safety applications,” says Smyser. “They will be able to test food at the store or at home for allergens, ripeness, spoilage, or pesticides. This will equip consumers with the information necessary to make the best possible decision for themselves and the environment.”

On the industrial side, food processing companies could easily have inspectors do quality and consistency spot checks with a handheld spectrometer, he notes.

NeoSpectra Micro development kits were shipped last summer, and production will begin in the second half of 2018. Target pricing for OEMs is $100 in large volumes (100,000 or more). The NeoSpectra module began shipping in volume in January 2018.

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