High-tech farming could slash water use up to 70 percent amid historic droughts

There is water the most important life resource for both humans and the crops we consume. Globally, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater consumption.

I study computers and information technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute and direct Purdue’s Environmental Network Technology (ENT) lab, where we address sustainability and environmental issues through interdisciplinary research on the Agricultural Internet of Things, or Ag-IoT.

The Internet of Things is a network of objects equipped with sensors to receive and transmit data via the Internet. Examples include wearable fitness devices, smart home thermostats, and self-driving cars.

In agriculture, this includes technologies such as wireless underground communications, underwater sensors and antennas in the soil. These systems help farmers track conditions on their land in real time and apply water and other resources, such as fertilizer, exactly when and where they are needed.

Sensors installed in a corn field. Abdul Salam

In particular, monitoring soil conditions holds great promise for helping farmers use water more efficiently. Sensors can now be wirelessly integrated into irrigation systems to provide real-time understanding of soil moisture levels. Studies show that this strategy can reduce water demand for irrigation by 20 percent to 72 percent without disrupting daily operations in crop fields.

What is the Internet of Agricultural Things?

Even in arid places like the Middle East and North Africa, agriculture is possible with efficient water management. But extreme weather caused by climate change is making it difficult. Over the past 20 years, repeated droughts in the western United States, along with other disasters such as wildfires, have caused billions of dollars in crop losses.

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Water experts have been measuring soil moisture for decades to inform water management and irrigation decisions. Automated technologies have largely replaced manual soil moisture instruments due to the difficulty of manually reading soil moisture readings in production fields in remote locations.

Over the past decade, wireless data acquisition technologies have begun to provide real-time access to soil moisture data that enables better water management decisions. These technologies could also have many advanced IoT applications in public safety, urban infrastructure monitoring, and food safety.

The Agricultural Internet of Things is a network of radios, antennas and sensors that collects real-time information about crops and soil in the field. These sensors and antennas are wirelessly connected to farm equipment to facilitate data collection. Ag-IoT is a complete system that can detect conditions on farmland, recommend actions in response, and send commands to farm machinery.

The technologies that together form the Internet of Agricultural Things.Abdul Salam / Purdue University

Interoperable devices such as soil moisture and temperature sensors in the field enable autonomous control of irrigation systems and water conservation. The system can schedule irrigation, monitor environmental conditions and control farm machinery such as seed planters and fertilizer applicators. Other uses include assessing soil nutrient levels and identifying pests.

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Challenges associated with implementing networks

Wireless data collection can help farmers use water more efficiently, but putting these components in the ground presents challenges. For example, at the Purdue ENT lab, we’ve found that when antennas that transmit sensor data are buried in soil, their performance changes dramatically depending on soil moisture. My new book, Signals in the Soil, explains how this happens.

Abdul Salam conducts measurements on a Purdue University test bench to determine the optimal operating frequency for underground antennas.Abdul Salam

Farmers use heavy machinery in the fields, so the antennas must be buried deep enough to avoid damage. As the soil becomes wet, the moisture affects the communication between the sensor network and the control system. Water in the soil absorbs signal energy, which weakens the signals sent by the system. Dense soil also blocks signal transmission.

We have developed a theoretical model and an antenna that reduces the influence of soil on underground communications by changing the operating frequency and system bandwidth. Using this antenna, sensors placed in the upper layers of the soil can provide real-time information about soil conditions to irrigation systems up to 650 feet (200 meters) away—longer than two football fields.

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Another solution I have developed to improve wireless communications in the soil is to use directional antennas to focus signal energy in a desired direction. Antennas that direct energy into the air can also be used for long-range wireless underground communications.

Using software radios to detect soil measurement signals. These radios can adjust their operating frequencies in response to changes in soil moisture. In actual operation, radios are buried in the soil.Abdul Salam

What will happen with Ag-IoT

Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important in Ag-IoT as it evolves. Farm networks require advanced security systems to protect the information they transmit. Solutions that allow researchers and agricultural extension agents to combine information from multiple farms are also needed. Collecting data in this way will lead to more accurate decisions on issues such as water use, while preserving grower privacy.

These networks must also adapt to changing local conditions such as temperature, precipitation and wind. Seasonal changes and crop growth cycles can temporarily alter the operating conditions of Ag-IoT equipment. Using cloud computing and machine learning, scientists can help Ag-IoT respond to changes in the environment.

Finally, lack of high-speed Internet access remains a problem in many rural communities. For example, many researchers have integrated wireless underground sensors with Ag-IoT into center irrigation systems, but farmers without high-speed Internet access cannot install this type of technology.

Integrating satellite network connectivity with Ag-IoT can help unconnected farms where broadband still isn’t available. Researchers are also developing vehicle-mounted and mobile Ag-IoT platforms using drones. Such systems can provide seamless connectivity in the field, making digital technology available to more farmers in more locations.

This article was originally published Conversation by Abdul Salam at Purdue University. Read the original article here.

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