A Holistic Approach to Farm Sensing

Insights

Over the past few months, we’ve been fielding enquiries from growers’ keen to know how our approach to farm sensing is different. Why not buy their own sensors and put them in the ground? Or choose another sensing system? 

In this post, Infrastructure Lead, John McGee, provides an introduction to farm sensing in our soon-to-be-released product, Sensing+ for Agriculture.

The first thing to point out is that sensing is just the first bite of the apple, in terms of what Sensing+ for Agriculture does. It is an end-to-end ecosystem, involving four key stages: sense, analyse, predict and inform.

First, we sense multiple conditions within your microclimate. We then apply data science to analyse the information, before creating 7-day on-farm predictions using artificial intelligence. These insights are sent from our secure Microsoft cloud to a mobile app, which is also used to record activities like irrigation and spraying, as well as setting notifications.

The second thing to note is the importance of having a stable, reliable measurement system underpinning your analytics. This is essential for any sensing system to be effective, or reliable as a decision support tool.

For example, when you buy your own sensors, you’re generally left to your own devices to manage and maintain them, and ensure they remain properly calibrated. As can often occur in this scenario, the quality of data coming through degrades over time, which can result in sensors recording flawed data. Or, if sensors don’t work continuously, you end up with ‘gappy' data.

When this happens it can be risky to rely on what your sensors are telling you, because data integrity can't be guaranteed. In addition, most self-procured sensors don't analyse your farm data or present you with any meaningful insights beyond current conditions. But we’ll talk more about analytics and data in a future post. 

What conditions are we sensing?

Let’s jump into the broad spectrum of growing conditions that are recorded in Sensing+ Agri:

·       Air temperature

·       Air pressure

·       Wind speed and wind direction

·       Relative humidity

·       Leaf (and berry) wetness

·       Soil moisture (at multiple depths)

·       Soil temperature (at multiple depths)

·       Soil electrical conductivity (at multiple depths)

·       Total solar radiation (PYR)

·       Photosynthetic active radiation (PAR)

These quantities are recorded and sent to the product’s mobile app, which updates every 15 minutes. Importantly, however, is how we combine your sensor data with artificial intelligence and modelling to give you on-farm predictions. Sensing+ Agri is not like a weather station that offers simple readings and requires you to fill in the gaps. It tells you what conditions are today, what they were over the past 7 days and what they are likely to be for the next week.

Our data science also creates new pieces of information like predictions for ETo/ETc and Delta-T. Take ETo/ETc - or crop water use - as an example. This refers to water loss from soil and plants through a combined process of transpiration (plants) and evaporation (soil). It is a really useful tool in estimating when and how much to irrigate.

ETo is calculated based on a standard grass sward. To identify the evaporation and transpiration for individual crops, ETo must be adjusted by a crop coefficient (Kc) to create an ETc reading. Both ETo and ETc are measured by combining solar radiation, air temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity and wind speed and direction. 

In Sensing+ Agri, these units are first converted into a current ETo and ETc reading, then calculated into 7-day predictions. These appear as a simple water value in millimetres in your app. It's easy to understand, and offers great support for your irrigation decisions.

Setting up your farm

The first step in a deployment is to strategically locate sensors in different microclimates on your farm. These microclimates, or hot spots, are identified by you because they have characteristics you want to know about.

While our local agronomists work with you to find the best locations, in our experience, many growers know these hot spots off the top of their head. 

For example, you might place sensors in a frost hollow, because you know it will be the first place on your property to get frost. This allows you to monitor the spot leading into, and through, a frost event. Your frost mitigation strategy is enhanced by having accurate, to-the-minute information that goes beyond temperature, as it captures all the local variables you need to make a decision.

Another example is an area prone to disease outbreak. By closely monitoring this location, you will start to observe the weather conditions or patterns most likely to cause an outbreak. This is one of the product's real advantages – the more data it records, the more it can tell you over time.

Sensor groups

Sensing+ Agri hardware comes in three sensor groups: Farm, Tall and Short. Farm sensors are deployed on every farm as they give us the growing conditions we need to provide localised weather conditions.

Then, depending on your crop type, you will generally deploy either Tall sensors (for perennial crops) or Short sensors (for annual crops). Unless you are mixed farming or have unique farm sensing requirements.

Tall sensors are designed for use in perennial crops like orchards or wineries. As they are permanent crops, typically with long and complex root systems, it is possible to deploy 800mm soil probes.

Short sensors have been tailored for annual crops where the microclimate occurs at ground level. As they are deployed within crop rows, these sensors are designed to sit below farm equipment like irrigation and spraying systems. They are installed post-sowing and removed pre-harvest, so as not to interfere with production.

As outlined above, while farm sensing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Sensing+ Agri, it is a foundational element of the product. For this reason, all hardware is professionally installed on your farm, and we have agronomists who work with you to determine the most effective placement of sensors. We also retain responsibility for hardware servicing, software and support.

I am pleased to say that, having worked alongside leading engineers at Bosch for almost two years, we have now optimised and fine-tuned the hardware to the point where it is proven to stand up to  on-farm conditions.

If you have any questions, please reach out to us via the contact form, or info@theyield.com. Otherwise please stay tuned for more updates. We have many more details to share with you as we count down to the official Sensing+ for Agriculture release in early October.  

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