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Sensors inform farming decisions

Sensors inform farming decisions

Sensor and network technology from Mohawk College could have many applications in agriculture 

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Farms.com

Researchers at Mohawk College are investigating ways to use networks of sensors to make farming more efficient and environmentally sustainable.

“This is all part of the Internet of Things (IoT) initiative that the college is undergoing,” Wayne Visser told Farms.com. He’s a faculty member in the computer sciences and information technology department at Mohawk College in Hamilton.

“IoT is basically an idea of instrumenting devices, systems, processes in order to gather information ... and make more intelligent decisions,” he explained. “IoT in agriculture can mean anything.”

For example, sensors are small enough that farmers could place them on animals to monitor body heat as an indicator of health, he said. Other potential applications include soil monitoring or vehicle positioning.

“What we’re using it for are weather stations,” Visser said. “The farm that we’re working with has a number of fields … and even over a relatively small area – a 20- or 30-kilometre (12- or 19-mile) radius – there can be variances in weather, so the general weather forecast may not be specific enough.”

Mohawk College partnered with Schuyler Farms in Simcoe. The Schuyler family raise grass-fed lamb and grow a variety of crops, including grains, oilseeds and sour cherries. The researchers tested IoT sensors, however, in the farm’s apple orchards.

“The owners of the farm were interesting in exploring if technology could make their farm more sustainable, by preventing the spread of fungal disease in their apples in order to reduce crop waste and pesticide usage,” said an online statement from Mohawk College.

The weather station sensors could monitor specific microclimatic conditions to help predict where pest outbreaks are more likely to occur, Visser explained. “The hope is that the farm can reduce the amount of pesticides that they’re spraying because they can apply them only when (and where) they need to apply them.”

This past growing season, “we installed some prototype weather stations,” he said. “There were some issues that came up that showed they may not be rugged enough for full-time commercial use.”

The experimenters are now investigating commercial weather stations for the same purpose.

“It’s a work in progress,” Visser added.

Future applications Visser hopes to research further include irrigation pump-house monitoring to determine temperature and power to ensure water is flowing. Sensors could also include water flow monitors to get real-time data on how much water is being used on the farm.

“Another interesting (application) is fuel-tank monitoring,” he added. A sensor could let the farmer know when their fuel tank reaches a certain level and needs to be refueled.

Sensors as part of the IoT could provide many types of information to make tasks simpler around the farm, and they’re relatively simple to use.

“A lot of these sensors are off-the-shelf,” Visser explained. For some, you get the sensor and a subscription to the company who makes them to provide the data analysis and visualization.

At Schuyler Farms, “they’ve installed their own gateway to the Internet” using low-power, long-range technology to connect to the gateway, Visser explained. This allows “the farm (to develop) their own software platform.”

The farmers started with a base software model from Mohawk College and now are working with a third party to customize the data software, he added.

Using sensors and the IoT in agriculture will be more common in the future, Visser said.

“Data is your friend. Data answers a lot of questions and the more data you get, the more questions you get answered,” he explained. “This technology has a low-cost threshold; it’s easy to get into. And a lot of the infrastructure is available to the public. … Suddenly you’re more empowered to make intelligent decisions about farming.”

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