High-tech farming can reduce water use by up to 70 percent in the face of historic droughts

This is water it is the most important resource for life, both for humans and for the products we consume. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all fresh water use in the world.

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

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

Agriculture includes technologies such as wireless underground communications, underground sensing, and antennas in the ground. These systems help farmers monitor conditions on their land in real time and apply other inputs like water and fertilizer when and where they are needed.

Sensors are 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 awareness of soil moisture levels. Studies show that this strategy can reduce irrigation water demand anywhere from 20 percent to 72 percent without disrupting day-to-day farm operations.

What is the Agricultural Internet of Things?

Even in dry places like the Middle East and North Africa, agriculture is possible with efficient water management. But climate change-related extreme weather events make this even more difficult. Over the past 20 years, recurring droughts and other disasters such as wildfires in the western United States have caused billions of dollars in crop losses.

Water experts have measured soil moisture to inform water management and irrigation decisions for decades. Automated technologies have largely replaced soil moisture instruments because it is difficult to measure soil moisture manually in remote production areas.

Over the past decade, wireless data acquisition technologies have begun to provide real-time access to soil moisture data that allows for better water management decisions. These technologies may 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 collect real-time crop and soil data in the field. These sensors and antennas are wirelessly connected to farm equipment to facilitate data collection. Ag-IoT is a complete framework that can detect conditions in agricultural areas, propose responses and send commands to agricultural machinery.

Technologies that together make up the Agricultural Internet of Things.Abdul Salam/Purdue University

Connected devices such as soil moisture and field temperature sensors allow irrigation systems to be controlled and water saved autonomously. The system can schedule irrigation, monitor environmental conditions, and control farm machinery such as planters and fertilizer applicators. Other applications include assessing soil nutrient levels and identifying pests.

Challenges of undergrounding networks

Wireless data collection has the potential to help farmers use water more efficiently, but putting these components on the ground presents challenges. For example, at the Purdue ENT Lab, we discovered that when antennas transmitting sensor data are buried in soil, their performance changes dramatically depending on soil moisture. My new book, Signals in the Land, explains how this happens.

Abdul Salam conducts testbed measurements at Purdue University to determine the optimal operating frequency of underground antennas.Abdul Salam

Farmers use heavy machinery in the fields, so antennas must be buried deep enough to avoid damage. As the soil becomes moist, 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 interferes with signal transmission.

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

Another solution I’ve come up with to improve wireless communications on the ground is to use directional antennas to direct the signal energy in the desired direction. Aerial antennas can also be used for underground wireless long-range communications.

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

What’s next for Ag-IoT?

Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important to Ag-IoT as it matures. Enterprise networks need advanced security systems to protect the data they transmit. There is a need for solutions that allow researchers and agricultural extension agents to integrate data from multiple farms. Aggregating data in this way will allow for more accurate decisions on issues such as water use, while protecting grower privacy.

These networks must also adapt to changing local conditions such as temperature, rain and wind. Seasonal changes and crop growth cycles can temporarily alter operating conditions for Ag-IoT equipment. By using cloud computing and machine learning, scientists can help Ag-IoT respond to environmental changes.

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

Integrating satellite-based network connectivity with Ag-IoT can help unconnected farms where broadband connectivity is still unavailable. Researchers are also developing vehicle-mounted and mobile Ag-IoT platforms that use drones. Systems like these provide seamless connectivity in the field, making digital technologies available to more farmers in more places.

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

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