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How Wireless Technology Helps Farmers Save Water

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In particular, monitoring soil conditions has great potential to help farmers use water more efficiently. Sensors can now be wirelessly integrated into irrigation systems to perceive soil moisture levels in real time. Research suggests that this strategy can reduce water demand for irrigation by 20% to 72%, without interfering with daily work on the farmland.

What is the Internet of Things for Agriculture?

Efficient water management enables agriculture even in arid regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. But extreme weather events caused by climate change are making it difficult. Billions of dollars of crops have been lost over the past two decades due to repeated droughts, wildfires and other disasters in the western United States.

Water professionals have been measuring soil moisture to inform water management and irrigation decisions for decades. Manual reading of soil moisture at remote production sites is difficult, so automated techniques have replaced handheld soil moisture tools.

Over the past decade, wireless data collection technology has enabled real-time access to soil moisture data to improve water management decision-making. These technologies can have many advanced IoT applications in public safety, urban infrastructure monitoring, and even food safety.

The Agricultural Internet of Things is a network of radios, antennas, and sensors that collect real-time crop and soil information in the field. These sensors and antennas are wirelessly interconnected with agricultural equipment to facilitate data collection. Ag-IoT is a complete framework that can detect farmland conditions, suggest actions accordingly, and send commands to agricultural machinery.

By interconnecting devices such as soil moisture sensors and temperature sensors in situ, irrigation systems can be controlled and water conservation autonomous. The system can schedule irrigation, monitor environmental conditions, and control agricultural machinery such as seed planters and fertilizer spreaders. Other applications include estimating soil nutrient levels and pest identification.

Challenges in undergrounding networks

Wireless data collection has the potential to help farmers use water more efficiently, but putting these components in the ground presents challenges. For example, the Purdue ENT Lab found that when an antenna that transmits sensor data is buried in the soil, its operating characteristics change significantly with soil moisture. My new book Signals in the Soil explains how this happens.

Farmers use heavy equipment in the fields, so antennas must be embedded deep enough to avoid damage. When the soil gets wet, the moisture affects communication between the sensor network and the control system. Moisture in the soil absorbs signal energy and weakens the signal transmitted by the system. Dense soil also blocks signal transmission.

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

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

After Ag-IoT

Cybersecurity becomes more and more important as Ag-IoT matures. Networks on your farm require advanced security systems to protect the information you transfer. We also need solutions that allow researchers and extension workers to integrate information from multiple farms. Aggregating data in this way allows us to make more accurate decisions about issues such as water use while protecting grower privacy.

These networks must also adapt to changing local conditions such as temperature, rainfall and wind. Seasonal changes and crop growth cycles can temporarily change the operating conditions of Ag-IoT devices. Using cloud computing and machine learning, the scientist can help her Ag-IoT respond to changes in its surrounding environment.

Finally, lack of high-speed Internet access remains a problem in many rural communities. For example, many researchers have integrated wireless underground sensors into center-pivot irrigation systems with his Ag-IoT, but farmers without high-speed internet access cannot deploy this kind of technology.

Integrating satellite-based network connectivity with Ag-IoT can help unconnected farms where broadband connectivity is not yet available. Researchers are also developing in-vehicle and mobile Ag-IoT platforms using drones. Such a system would provide continuous connectivity in the field, making digital technology accessible to more farmers in more locations.

Abdul Salam is an Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Technology at Purdue University.

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