High-tech farming could slash water use up to 70 percent amid historic droughts

water is The most important resource for life, both for humans and for the crops we consume. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater uses.

I teach computers and information technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute and the direct Purdue Environmental Networking Technology (ENT) Lab, where we address sustainability and environmental challenges through interdisciplinary research in 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.

In agriculture, it includes technologies such as underground radio communications, subsurface sensing, and antennas in the soil. These systems help farmers track conditions on their land in real time, and use water and other inputs like fertilizer exactly when and where they need it.

Sensors installed in an atom field. Abdulsalam

In particular, monitoring soil conditions is very promising to help 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 water demand for irrigation anywhere from 20 percent to 72 percent without impeding day-to-day operations in crop fields.

What is the Agricultural Internet of Things?

Even in arid places like the Middle East and North Africa, agriculture is possible through efficient water management. But extreme weather events driven by climate change are making this more difficult. Frequent droughts in the western United States over the past 20 years, along with other disasters such as wildfires, have caused billions of dollars in crop losses.

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Water experts have measured soil moisture to inform water management and irrigation decisions for decades. Automated technologies have largely replaced portable soil moisture instruments because it is difficult to take manual soil moisture readings on production fields in remote locations.

In the past decade, wireless data collection technologies have begun to provide real-time access to soil moisture data, making better water management decisions. These technologies can 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 crop and soil information in real time in the field. To facilitate data collection, these sensors and antennas are wirelessly linked to farm equipment. Ag-IoT is a complete framework that can detect conditions on farmland, suggest actions in response and send commands to farm machinery.

The technologies that together make up the Agricultural Internet of Things.Abdel Salam / Purdue University

Interconnected devices such as soil moisture and temperature sensors in the field allow irrigation and water conservation systems to be controlled independently. The system can schedule watering, monitor environmental conditions, and control farm machinery, such as seed planters and fertilizer spreaders. Other applications include estimation of nutrient levels in the soil and identification of pests.

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Challenges of laying underground networks

Wireless data collection can help farmers use water more efficiently, but putting these components in the ground creates challenges. For example, in the Purdue ENT lab, we found that when the antennas transmitting sensor data are buried in soil, their operating characteristics change dramatically depending on how wet the soil is. My new book, Signals in the Soil, explains how this happens.

Abdel Salam takes measurements in a test bed at Purdue University to determine the optimal operating frequency for underground antennas.Abdulsalam

Farmers use heavy equipment in the fields, so the antennae must be buried deep enough to avoid damage. When the soil becomes wet, the moisture affects the communication between the sensor network and the control system. The water in the soil absorbs the signal energy, which weakens the signals sent by the system. Dense soil also inhibits signal transmission.

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

Another solution I developed to improve radio communication in soil is the use of directional antennas to focus the signal energy in the desired direction. Antennas that direct energy into the air can also be used for long-distance wireless communications underground.

Using software-defined radios to detect soil gauge signals. These wireless devices can adjust their operating frequencies in response to soil moisture changes. In actual operation, the radios are buried in the soil.Abdulsalam

What’s next for Ag-IoT

Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important to Ag-IoTs as they mature. On-farm networks need advanced security systems to protect the information they transmit. There is also a need for solutions that enable researchers and agricultural extension agents to integrate information from multiple farms. Compiling data in this way will lead to more accurate decisions about issues such as water use, while preserving farmers’ privacy.

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These networks also need to adapt to changing local conditions, such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Seasonal changes and crop growth cycles can temporarily alter the operating conditions of Ag-IoT equipment. Using cloud computing and machine learning, scientists can help Ag-IoT respond to shifts in the environment around it.

Finally, the lack of high-speed Internet access continues to be an issue in many rural communities. For example, many researchers have integrated underground wireless sensors with Ag-IoT into center pivot irrigation systems, but farmers who do not have high-speed internet access cannot install this type of technology.

Integrating satellite-based network connectivity with Ag-IoT can help offline farms where broadband connectivity is still not available. Researchers are also developing mobile and vehicle-mounted Ag-IoT platforms that use drones. Such systems could provide continuous connectivity in the field, making digital technologies accessible to more farmers in more places.

This article was originally published Conversation Posted by Abdus Salam at Purdue University. Read the original article here.

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