Sensors On The Ground: A Network Of Knowledge

Sensors are certainly nothing new to agriculture. Although they are getting more and more robust, on-board sensors have been providing feedback on the operation of machinery for many years. Liquid tank monitors on bulk chemical tanks have been tracking quantities and sending out the call to manufacturers for refills for a decade. Weather stations have been positioned all across rural America and collecting vital data for some time.

But the advent of wireless connectivity through cellular bandwidth has been a game-changer. Sensors collect data and continuously report back to a data storage receptacle in the cloud, increasing both the quantity and the virility of the data. Phone apps and laptop dashboards pull in data points and provide an easy-to-understand interface that provides feedback in a clear, understandable way.

Sensors In A System

One organization that has worked to push forward as fast as possible on sensor data is Farmers Edge.

“For us, our product is really decision support,” says Ron Osborne, Vice President of Innovation. “We combine a lot of disparate data into our farm command platform, and that data is the underlying information that we use to create analytics and help farmers make decisions.”

Sensors are interspersed throughout the system, and ground zero for data is really the ground. It starts with good, old-fashioned soil sampling with a guy out on a quad or truck pulling cores. Then it gets more interesting.

Farmers Edge maintains what it calls supersites, where weather stations are connected to soil moisture probes and other types of sensing technologies, monitoring characteristics such as nitrogen, moisture, and electrical conductivity.

“We have to connect sensors to weather stations, so we try to consolidate the systems into one data transport layer through the cellular backhaul of the weather station, or through a 900-megahertz network we deploy,” explains Osborne. “In that case, we are combining soil information with weather information.”

The challenge is in the placement of sensors at a farm location that is safe from field activities, but close enough to provide accurate, meaningful data about that particular farm field. “It’s a fine balance to find that location, make the installation, and calibrate it,” says Osborne.

Thousands of Spectrum- and Davis-branded weather stations have been deployed for Farmers Edge, and the system continues to get more robust, he adds.

Farmers Edge also offers machinery data collection via a proprietary telemetry package that is installed on field equipment. “We have about 12,000 machines around the world equipped with our system, encompassing about 90 different equipment brands,” says Osborne. Machines stream in data and provide valuable information on dozens of different field and machine values in real time.

At the end of the day, for Farmers Edge the key pieces of data are soil chemistry, field activities, variable-rate seed, fertilizer, and yield data. And machine info is as important as data files, as it helps the farmer understand and improve productivity. Mix in satellite imagery to help create and manage zones and monitor in-season crops, and Farmers Edge believes it has the closest thing yet to a complete precision package.

“I think we found a sweet spot,” says Osborne. “Scalable technology combined with on the ground experience — that is what farmers need.”

Irrigation Control

Existing ag technology manufacturers as well as a slew of newcomers to the industry have rushed into the sensor business in hopes of delivering the next big thing for agriculture. One area that’s developed rapidly in response to concerns about water availability and quality has been irrigation.

Wireless telemetry and improved soil moisture and weather monitoring have led to the development of a number of systems for farmers and professionals with responsibility for irrigation. Irrigation pivot manufacturers have led the charge in developing the base systems, and one of the leading decision-facilitating dashboard tools is Field Commander from AgSense.

In its most robust form, the Field Commander package allows users to remotely monitor and precisely control center pivots and pumps, along with monitoring flow, pressure, and weather, says Steve Sveum, Vice President, Sales and Marketing. Capabilities include variable-rate irrigation and custom prescription programming, and soil moisture monitoring can also be added.

Irromesh Node F Sensors R RGB
IRROmeter’s IRROmesh soil monitoring sensor.

IRROmeter, another long-time player in the ag irrigation industry, recently introduced a solar-powered wireless soil monitoring system called IRROmesh. Capable of in-field measurement of soil moisture, temperature, and other parameters, sensor data from each system node is routed through an interactive mesh network, then centralized to the web for uploading to a PC or mobile device.

The payoff for irrigation control has proven out, says Tom Penning, IRROmeter’s President. “The benefits of irrigation scheduling based on proper interpretation of soil moisture data are primarily increased yield and quality,” he explains. “Other influences are water savings, labor savings, fuel savings, fertilizer savings, and pest and disease mitigation. Typically most users find the equipment cost recovered in the first season of use if using manually read devices. If automated data collection is involved, then the return on investment takes a little longer.”

Big Plans For IOT

Relatively green Internet of Things (IoT) player infiswift is in the midst of its sophomore campaign after the Bay Area-based enterprise solutions provider incorporated just over a year ago.

Will Shippee, Senior Director of Sales and Business Development, says the company at the moment is focused on working with OEMs and technology providers in the agriculture vertical (infiswift also has customers in the distributed energy field.). Its IoT platform and professional services for precision farming is an “umbrella” for all of its work within the ag industry.

“We’re a technology enabler,” Shippee says via phone from the company’s San Ramon, CA, offices. “Let’s say, for example, a sensor manufacturer comes to us, it doesn’t matter what they’re measuring, be it pH, soil moisture, or whatever it may be.

“So, they come to us and they say, ‘We want to drive a new generation of connected sensors, where we can have from two to 2,000 of these sensors out in a field, and we want them to communicate amongst each other, but also provide various controls, functions, or rules combined with other technologies, say flow pumps or other hardware devices out there.’

“What we would do,” he continues, “is we’d evaluate exactly what those requirements are that the customer wants to achieve, and then we would work with them to advise the right hardware — this can be a printed circuit board and a chip that’s the size of your pinky nail — and that will be deployed amongst each sensor to enable not only the communication between these sensors, but also our embedded software-stack, logic, and business rules that are unique to what the customer wants to achieve.”

Infiswift sees the precision agriculture market currently in the midst of a shift in capabilities, from Precision Agriculture 1.0 (cloud-based storage, datalogger and cell modem-enabled data transfer) to the oncoming Precision Agriculture 2.0.

“What we want to do is break down a lot of those data silos. Rather than relying on capturing data and sending it up to the cloud via cell modem, let’s apply unique, IoT-based solutions to the problem,” Shippee argues.

By applying in an MQTT-based (lightweight messaging protocol) solution around the data, devices can share the data or send it to the cloud depending on what the user requires. Shippee says this MQTT protocol approach allows infiswift to drive down computing power requirements and associated costs while driving up communication capabilities in low-bandwidth areas.

“If you’re pulling data from one type of sensor and you really want that to be integrated with, for example, a meteorological feed from NOAA, we’re able to then pull that data in from that third-party server and then provide your own cloud-hosted architecture. From there, you will be able to pull in that third-party data along with the data you’re generating in your own operations, and drive actionable data off of that.

“We don’t want to just give you ones and zeros, we want to give you actionable data that results either in an efficiency increase or some kind of cost savings.”

Although Shippee declines to name specific companies in agriculture that his outfit is working with at this time, he agrees it’s situations such as the one found in his home state of California, where a statewide farm worker minimum-wage increase has producers antsy about the future, that will drive operations to look more closely going forward at the adoption of automation.

“That really dives into the broader need to increase efficiency in the face of a lack of resources, and a lack of eyeballs on an operation,” he says. “The question is, do you have John go jump in his pickup and check on X, Y, and Z, and then radio back if it’s good? Or do you take that operational knowledge and apply it to those needs, automate that process, and then drive learning off of that moving forward — so John can spend his time managing other things?”


Leave a Reply

Imagery/Sensing Stories
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
InfoAg Trade show floor
AmericasInfoAg 2018 Deep Dive: Pixels Over Plastic (OPINION)
July 25, 2018
  InfoAg, precision farming’s annual mid-summer blowout, is about a week in the rearview as I type this, a hazy Read More
Imagery/SensingIntelinAir, TerrAvion Partner on Ultra High Resolution Imagery with Automated Analysis
June 21, 2018
IntelinAir has partnered with TerrAvion to deliver what it is calling a “best in class imagery solution” to joint customers Read More
Imagery/SensingImagery in Agriculture: Time for a Reality Check
June 4, 2018
Where do I begin….I’ve been dealing with imagery in agriculture since I was 10 when my dad started Satshot. At Read More
Trending Articles
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
Kansas State University
Industry NewsKansas State University, Topcon Form Precision Ag Research Partnership
August 30, 2018
Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture are collaborating to develop tools and systems to advance precision agriculture and support farmers. Read More
Blockchain building block graphic
Specialty CropsIs Blockchain the Future of Food Safety?
August 24, 2018
When the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized in 1982, permitting the worldwide proliferation of interconnected networks and eventually the Read More
WinField’s Joel Wipperfurth On Empowering Data-Driven Decisions
InfoAg ConferenceOne on One with Joel Wipperfurth, Winfield United
August 15, 2018
Winfield United's Joel Wipperfurth discusses ag technology trends and topics during last month’s InfoAg Conference. Read More
Industry NewsUrtheCast to Acquire Geosys from Land O’Lakes in $20 Million Deal
August 15, 2018
UrtheCast Corp. and Land O’Lakes, Inc. today announced they have entered a binding term sheet for the purchase of Geosys Read More
Latest News
Business ManagementIvy Tech, Farmers Partner to Help Precision Ag Educatio…
September 20, 2018
Harvest time has taken on a new meaning for some Wabash Valley farmers, and Bobbi Hunt-Kincaid hopes her family’s first Read More
Sensors/IoTThe Answer to Agriculture’s Daunting Challenges – Soil …
September 20, 2018
According to the United Nations, 9.6 billion people will live on planet Earth by 2050. Feeding these mouths will require Read More
Data ManagementRainfall Revisited: Accurate Observations and Beyond
September 18, 2018
As a provider of weather analysis and forecast services to the agricultural industry, one of the most common questions I Read More
Business ManagementWhy Is Funding a Challenge for Women-Led Agtech Compani…
September 17, 2018
When it comes to women-led agtech companies the funding discussion never seems to cease. In June after the The New Read More
Mobile Phone in field
Decision Support SoftwareWhy Are 570 Million Farmers Not Yet Using Agricultural …
September 17, 2018
Until recently, using agricultural apps and software was a rare practice among growers. This is now changing. The mass adoption Read More
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Grower Services & SolutionsDeere-Granular Collaboration Produces New Profit Maps T…
September 14, 2018
The newest development from the ongoing John Deere-Granular product development and marketing collaboration is Profit Maps, now available to farmers Read More
DronesOpinion: Combining Two Pluses with the WingtraOne UAV
September 13, 2018
For the every-day consumer interested in UAVs, there is an ocean of products from which to choose. This includes the Read More
AsiaShould Agri-Input Manufacturers Outsource E-Commerce to…
September 12, 2018
Editor’s note: Venky Ramachandran is a contributing writer for’s sister site, This article was originally published on LinkedIn. Now, Read More
Industry NewsValley Irrigation Adds Remote Irrigation Management Opt…
September 11, 2018
Valley Irrigation, an industry leader in smart irrigation solutions, has announced enhancements to its remote management technologies. Multi-Year Licensing In Read More
Variable Rate ApplicationVariable Rate Fertigation System Expands with Mobile Co…
September 10, 2018
Building on the success of its Reflex Variable Rate Fertigation system, Agri-Inject has taken fluid injection to the next level Read More
Industry NewsTeralytic Earns Ag Data Transparent Certification
September 10, 2018
Soil analytics company Teralytic has completed the Ag Data Transparent certification, affirming that their data use is private, secure, and Read More
Business ManagementTop 20 Two-Year Colleges for Precision Agriculture
September 10, 2018
Earlier this year, I compiled a list of the 25 best colleges for precision agriculture. It was quite the process. Read More
Industry NewsRaven, Topcon Announce Slingshot API Agreement
September 6, 2018
Raven Industries and Topcon Agriculture announced today a licensing agreement for Topcon Agriculture’s use of the Slingshot Application Programming Interface Read More
Tablet Grower
Data ManagementThe Power of Predictive Analytics in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Years ago if we would have been told computers, data, and technology would be scattered around every farm there may Read More
DronessenseFly Launches eBee X Drone, Breaks Through 1,000 ac…
September 5, 2018
senseFly today reportedly sets a new standard in mapping tools with the launch of the eBee X. Launched with the Read More
AmericasOn The Scene: 2018 Farm Progress Show Wrap Up
September 5, 2018
Former Monsanto President (now Bayer CropScience Chief Operating Office) Brett Begemann’s opening salvo during his first appearance at a Farm Read More
EventsAg Experts Discuss Big Data Challenges in Agriculture
September 5, 2018
Agricultural experts at a Houston conference praised the advancements in unmanned aerial vehicles, sensors, and data-collecting technology used in precision Read More