The design of a cost efficient precision agriculture system poses unique challenges. Data collection has been performed in the AgTech industry for decades, however, with many limitations. The traditional precision agriculture system contains measuring tools that are costly, difficult to deploy and require manpower in the field. The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and has facilitated these barriers to a certain extent, yet even within the IoT, there is room for improvement. Since the IoT holds different sectors (hardware, software and cloud) many solutions address only one part of the value chain. Thus, they offer either the hardware itself or data management software platforms.
These incomplete products require end customers to tailor their own solutions composed of a mixture of devices from different vendors. From a different perspective, keep in mind that agricultural conditions are dynamic and fixed end-to-end platforms can’t always address the ever-changing environment. Integrating new sensors to a system can be time consuming. That’s why Atomation’s end-to-end platform offers a generic solution that communicates with various types of hardware. In that way, the platform is end-to-end but allows customization and flexibility. With the right platform, transforming your greenhouse/field to a high yielding asset isn’t that difficult. Here is everything you need to know to make it happen:
1. A Generic End-to-End Precision Agriculture System
When building your precision agriculture system, one of the largest challenges might sound trivial. Once choosing your sensors, how can you connect them to the internet? Each sensor has its own existing protocol that needs to be translated to one unified protocol. Once overcoming this challenge, sensors can communicate with each other and with the cloud. Atomation’s platform is scalable, robust and agnostic. Atomation communicates in many protocols, and therefore can easily connect to any sensor. If you want a full customized solution, choose a platform that provides the tools and not the service. The tools should include:
- Hardware: Electronic circuits, sensors and actuators of your choice.
- SDK: Nowadays, the mobile is becoming a favorable hub. A good mobile SDK will let you build apps for interaction with sensors and serve as the gateway to the cloud. Basically, there’s no need to deal with the hardware, the SDK has the communication covered with any sensor you want.
- Cloud: A cloud platform that will let you generate your own reports and analyze the data that is important to you.
2. Durable Sensors that Provide Useful Insights
Your precision agriculture system might be outdoors and must be able to survive extreme conditions. In order to overcome these challenges, choose wireless sensors that are easily portable, deployable, removable and reusable. Small, wireless and cheap sensors are replacing heavy, stationary and costly products. Atomation not only connects to sensors but also to actuators including transistors, relays, LEDs, motors and more that are important for automating the greenhouse/field and reducing human intervention. If you want to keep standards high, ensure that all sensor readings have at least 5% precision and that they are designed to be submersible in water. Relevant sensors include: temperature, humidity, CO2, NO3, light quantity and quality, soil moisture, soil temperature and 5TE (measuring soil conductivity).
3. The Right Communication Protocol
Atomation aligned the platform with various communication protocols, each has pros and cons and suits different use cases. BLE (BlueTooth Low Energy), the emerging protocol best known for its use in wearables is surprisingly well suited for a precision agriculture system. Since BLE is low energy, it enables long battery lives (years), and very low BOMs (meaning, the BLE is a cost efficient solution). The BLE made its strong entrance when it became an integral part of our mobile phones. This turned the mobile phone into a new kind of hub, one that also serves as a gateway and also provides a user interface. Surely BLE is limited by its distance range (approx 100 meters), but the new mobile hub is relatively cheap. Just spread as much as you need.
WiFi can be an alternative since its distance ranges are double, but battery lives are short and it is more expensive. 3G will provide even larger distance ranges (endless depending on cellular network) but is the most expensive option. The decision should probably depend on the project’s nature. BLE would be classic for a greenhouse, however maybe 3G would be best for an open large field.
4. How Near Should Near Real Time Be?
When tracking multiple sensors, it may be challenging to have all sensors communicating with the cloud simultaneously. In order to properly coordinate data transmission, don’t read all sensors at once, and save the data on the sensors until reading them. Think about the needed sensor reading frequency. If you’ll read the sensors every 10 minutes, you’ll get very accurate data and you’ll still be able to distribute reading times between different sensors. This method can also help solve situations in which a sensor is mistakenly distant from the gateway, with no internet connection. You will not loose the data since you’ll be able to save it on the sensor itself until it reaches a hub.
5. Cloud Analytics and Automation
After choosing sensors and connecting them to the cloud, it’s time to reap the benefits. The cloud platform gathers, analyzes and translates data to insights. Real time outputs together with thorough analysis based on patterns will help you know and treat your crops better. In a true precision agriculture system, the cloud will work both ways, gathering data from sensors, and operating actuators based on predefined rules. Thus, if the platform detects that the land is dry, it will automatically activate your irrigation system. You’ll continuously be receiving crucial data, while reducing human intervention. Let’s put it this way, you’re getting maximum control, top notch efficiency, with minimum effort.
Furthermore, a good cloud database will provide an API that lets you customize your reports. To really delve into the data, you want to be able to explore different data visualizations, export the data to different formats (including Excel, XML, JSON and more) and to third party databases. In addition, the cloud platform should also serve as a project management console. This should include management of an unlimited number of projects with an organized interface.
Here at Atomation, we’ve been working extensively on developing a platform that will provide all these features. We want to give our customers a full solution, with the costs and flexibility that they would enjoy if they were to do it themselves. Define the sensors, choose your preferred protocol and design your reports – we’ll advise and make it happen. Got the hardware side covered? Already have a cloud platform? Don’t sweat it. Each part of our platform stands for its own. A precision agriculture system is crucial for your business, and more feasible than ever.