Project explores ‘Internet-of-Things’ for ag


WYO-BRASKA – One of the latest buzz-phrases in information and data use and manipulation is the concept of an internet-of-things.

At its most basic, an internet of things is any related grouping of devices, either mechanical or digital, or even animals or people with the ability to share data over a network. Now, one researcher at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff wants to apply those same concepts to agriculture.

Dr. Xin Qiao, water and irrigation management specialist at the center, has spent the past several months developing a new monitoring and data presentation concept he hopes will give producers in Nebraska, Wyoming and beyond vital information on the condition of their fields, as close as their nearest smart device. Working in conjunction with researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois-Champaign, Xin has built two monitoring areas – one at the Mitchell Research Lab and another at the Center in Scottsbluff – complete with a variety of sensors gathering data on everything from soil moisture to temperature and relative humidity in the air.

“We’re using technology, like the internet of things, low-cost weather sensors – particularly air temperature and humidity sensors – to aid irrigation management or scheduling for our area,” Xin said. 

The sensors range in price from around $30 for the most basic temperature/humidity monitors to $1,000 or more for deep soil probes which can monitor a variety of inputs. But the new and exciting part of the process for Xin and his fellow researchers is the way data is being compiled and what’s being done with the data they collect.

Sensors in the field are wirelessly connected to a centralized receiver to a server which compiles the information and formats it so it can be easily understood. Once assembled, the information is made available – in real-time format – to a website on the regular internet at phrec-irrigation.com.

The individual parts of the project aren’t necessarily anything new, Xin said. Producers have had this or similar options for some time, but at a price that’s often been prohibitive, $150 or more per individual sensor per year.

“That doesn’t sound that bad for one sensor, but what if you have four or five?” Xin said. “We have such thin (profit) margins right now, that’s a lot.

“This concept we have, this is a new communications technology,” he said. “Any sensor within range can talk to the gateway and bring the data online. If you have 1,000 sensors in range, you don’t have to pay the telemetry costs for each of those thousand sensors.”

Optimal range between sensors and “gateway” tower is about five miles, at least with the two Xin and his colleagues have already put up. The manufacturers say there’s a maximum range of about 10 miles, but that’s dependent on perfect line-of-sight transmission, he said. 

“In our area, we don’t have that many tall buildings that block transmission,” Xin said. “But we do have topography. We have to take that into account.”

The project so far has been proving the concept works – that an internet-of-things could be set up, could gather information and make that information available via the World Wide Web – and building the first two networks for testing, Xin said. This year, he wants to expand, possibly even putting up another network and receiver, and start testing some real-world applications.

“Right now, we have unlimited potential to acquire any sort of data, but collecting it is not enough,” Xin said. “The end goal is how can that add value to the producer? That’s the question we start with.”

One of those applications includes giving sugarbeet growers in the Wyo-Braska region a source for real-time monitoring of Cercospora leaf spot, a serious disease producers have to manage in the region every year. Western Sugar is currently using temperature and humidity sensors and an algorithm developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to predict where leaf spot could occur. But that’s based on a few, centralized monitoring locations, sometimes miles away from an individual producer’s field.

“If we use our technology – the sensors are cheap – they could be right on the producer’s fields,” Xin said. “We could display the disease index right here, online, for individual fields. The data would be processed and the producer could see their disease index right away.

“That’s one value we could add to a producer’s life,” he said. “If you think about all the different sensors we could put in the field, producers can know a lot of details about their fields.”

The project is also looking at similar monitoring for disease indices on other crops, including dry edible beans. Better weather prediction to help growers develop irrigation plans and scheduling is also not out of the realm of possibility, he said.

A major challenge Xin and fellow researchers are facing right now is deciding what types of monitoring and data collection would best serve producers in this area. He wants to host a series of round-table discussions with area producers – or even just hear from people individually – about what types of information they’d find useful.

“Not many producers come to me and say, ‘This is what I need,’” he said. “But that would be very helpful. It would guide our research.

“I hate to add burden to a producer’s life, but at a certain point, you have to know what’s going on in your field,” Xin said. “We’re willing to provide those tools, but if you don’t tell us what you need, we’re walking in the dark.”

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