Connecting Farm Operations With Wireless Sensor Control

Connecting Farm Operations With Wireless Sensor Control

Sensors Insights by Scott Keller and Fred Czubba

Farming requires managing a multitude of assets and operations.  Staying connected to what is happening with the field environment, equipment utilization, supply levels and crop growth is an essential – and challenging – task to remain productive. 

As farmers look to operate more profitably, many are adopting wireless technology to better track, control, and connect different operations.  Whether a large dairy, small poultry or diversified crop farm, wireless sensor monitoring and control systems can automate the remote management of various assets over a vast expanse of land.  They can provide real-time status on irrigation systems, silo levels, ground moisture levels, scale readings, pump house equipment status, farm equipment usage and so much more. 

More than automating data collection, these wireless telemetry systems are configurable to shut down operations or send an alert when reaching a threshold.  Collected data is downloadable into analytics software for better asset management, such as calculating and analyzing feed storage costs in silos.  In some configurations, data is accessible through an Internet connection. Users can even move data to the cloud or a backend server for long-term historical analysis.

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Tying Farm Operations with a Wireless Network System

Data capture on many farms is still very labor intensive, with farmhands regularly traveling into different areas of the farm to take manual measurements and jot numbers in a daily diary.  In addition to data being unprecise and quickly outdated, these farms need a large pool of workers to cover an expanse of the area several times a day.  For a small farm, that can mean monitoring assets over 300-500 acres, 1,500-2,500 acres for a medium to a large farm and 5,000-10,000 acres for a mega farm.  And as workers operate in isolation from one another, data is not shared throughout the farm operation. 

Information technology tools requiring farmers to input data are not popular as workers are reluctant to learn complicated processes of specialized equipment that interrupt farming operations.  A farm monitoring system using sensors to monitor and report on farm operations eliminates the need for operator interfaces.   These sensor control systems can be used to switch remote irrigation pumps on and off over large sections of crops and manage the levels of feed silos to ensure that sufficient feed is always available.  

For example, the SignalFire Remote Sensing System (SFRSS) is a wireless asset monitoring and control system that employs nodes to extract and transmit data from sensors via radio transmission to a gateway that serves as the central processing hub.  The nodes power the sensors, making for a truly wireless system.   The gateway formats then deliver data to a PLC in a control center or links to the Internet where data is accessible by laptop.  

While many wireless networking systems restrict sensor selection to one or two types, the SignalFire system allows users to specify many sensor types to monitor assets.  With the ability to pick and choose sensors, farms can use pH sensors to detect soil conditions, level sensors to monitor silage storage and pressure sensors to monitor irrigation systems in one network that brings all the data together to a single point with a single data interface. 

In a farming environment, a wireless system may spread over many square miles.  A wireless telemetry system with a mesh network at its core permits many wireless devices to self-configure into a web-like structure.  For instance, the SignalFire wireless telemetry system incorporates a mesh network that can be deployed over large areas regardless of hills, buildings and other structures that may obstruct the radio transmissions of other networks.  Robust gateways can accommodate hundreds of transceiver inputs from the field sensor, enabling the network to cover a geographic range of a mega farm of 10,000 acres that roughly equals 15 square miles. 

 

Wireless Sensor Control System Monitors Silo Levels and Moisture Simultaneously

Silo monitoring is a good example where a wireless sensor control system can serve a farm well.  Bulk solid levels and humidity are critical parameters to track in farm silos.  While level monitoring reports on the available inventory of feed and seed essential for farming operations, tracking humidity guards against high moisture content in silos that can stimulate the growth of mold.  Climatic conditions can cause physical changes in stored bulk grain as the movement of moisture causes deterioration, leading to a loss of inventory.

Farms already utilize different sensor technologies to monitor silo levels and humidity.  Many are wired into control systems that require cabling each sensor to the PLC.  While offering remote capabilities, wired monitoring and control systems pose challenges.  If monitoring multiple parameters with different sensors, a wired system requires a large interface panel with many different interfaces. 

Sensors installed on top of silos are prone to lightning strikes that will propagate along wires, often destroying equipment attached to the system.  When removing sensors for periodic maintenance, wires integrating to units also can be damaged.  And who wants to climb a silo to check the wiring on a sensor in an area where grain dust can be very explosive, posing a danger to both the operator and facility? 

A wireless sensor network system provides a safe, efficient and cost-effective method for concurrently monitoring grain levels, silo temperatures and other parameters with multiple sensors without cabling requirements and the need for multiple interfaces.  Unaffected by ground faults associated with cabling, the wireless system is less susceptible to damage from lightning strikes as only the hit sensor might be damaged and not the entire network.  The wireless remote monitoring and control system also allows for the installation of the level and humidity sensors at any height and location on the silo.  Adding additional instrumentation is very easy with a wireless system as opposed to a wired system that would be costly and challenging with structures exceeding 80 feet tall.

Figure 1 illustrates the working configuration of a SignalFire wireless remote sensor system in monitoring grain levels and temperatures in silos.  Level and temperatures sensors installed with the silos are physically connected to Sentinel nodes (radios) that power and extract data from the sensors for transmission to a gateway antenna.  In this network, an Ethernet interface module connects to the gateway to tie information into either a local Wi-Fi network for local access or a modem that connects the Internet and a cloud service provider so that data is accessible across a co-op or is shared with a supplier or a customer.

Fig. 1: A wireless remote sensor system
Fig. 1: A wireless remote sensor system

Farm operators can access data on temperature and grain usage through the convenience of their laptops and even smartphones using their cloud service. Easy-to-read templates provide a graphic view, illustrating which silos are low on feed, making it easier for operators to get a good overview of the silos throughout the entire farm.

By automating silo monitoring activities, farmhands know when they need to switch to another silo or refill the measured silo.  As a result, the farmer increases production efficiency as well as gained true transparency over operations by receiving a constant status of silos and other operations.   The same wireless process can be used to monitor other assets throughout the farm for a completed connected and automated operation.

Figure 2: Node
Fig. 2: Node

Pictured above in figure 2 is a Signal Fire node (configured with a solar power system) that both powers and extracts data from sensors installed on farm silos (and other assets) for transmission to a gateway.

The SignalFire Gateway Stick (see figure 3) serves as the hub of a remote monitoring and control system as it stores the most recent readings of all the nodes in a network in Modbus format then manages outbound communications by formatting data for delivery to a control center.  An Ethernet interface module can tie information from the Gateway into a local Wi-Fi network for local access or a modem that connects the Internet and a cloud service provider. 

Fig. 3: Gateway stick
Fig. 3: Gateway stick

 

About the authors

Scott Keller is the founder, CEO and CTO of SignalFire Telemetry. He brings over 20 years of technical management experience to bear, including extensive experience in radio development, sensors, and embedded control. Scott recently served as program manager and senior consulting engineer with Venture Technologies Inc., an engineering consulting firm where he managed a number of telemetry and other projects.

Fred Czubba is the Founder and President of AXE Consulting Ltd. representing SignalFire Wireless Telemetry for Eastern Canada.