Well-connected in the field

It takes a team.

“We’re in a progression of connectivity,” explained Richard Grant. “Purdue is giving us the opportunity to enhance the linkage between the increasingly connected world and what we’ve always been doing.”

Seven miles northwest of Purdue’s campus, the Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE) hosts more than 50 researchers’ projects, including those of Grant, a professor of agronomy studying agricultural meteorology.

“My field is one that requires a lot of technology, said Grant. “It’s a matter of putting the pieces together. My interest is clearly in assembling the pieces. I like to see systems work well.”

Now utilizing Internet of Things (IOT) communications, wireless connectivity, strategic partnerships and advances in digital agriculture, Grant’s system is more efficient than ever. With the help of AgIT, the College of Agriculture is on a mission to enable Fully Connected Field Research.

“We have two goals,” said Grant. “The first is to optimize the amount of nitrogen put on crops so farmers don’t waste money.”

His second goal is environmental. Nitrogen that goes onto a field but not into crops, ends up in the air, ground or water. While scientists know a good bit about what goes into the ground and water, much less is known about what goes in the air. Grant is among the researchers hoping to determine what goes into the air.

“What’s in the air affects many different things,” Grant explained. “That includes human health because ammonia creates particulates in the air. Additionally, these greenhouse gases are a potential influence on global warming.”

To find the answers, Grant measures ammonia in the air with lasers and gold-plated reflectors, among other sensors. Grant began developing his system when conducting a national project, monitoring various gases off of livestock operations across the United States.

Richard Grant with reflectors

“We came up with our own system, but it wasn’t designed by anyone within IT,” Grant noted. “In prior years if I took measurements in the summer, the first calculated results I could use would not come until January or February.”

In 2012, Grant’s research moved to ACRE with seven different computers in a trailer running seven different sets of programs.

With the limited connectivity available, Grant was unable to remotely check his equipment for issues and power failures. Every time data was collected, someone would have to travel to the site with thumb drives or CDs.

“Around that time, Hewlett-Packard wanted to work with Purdue on a couple of proof of concepts,” Grant recalled. “Because I had already been heavily into communications and data processing, it was natural for me to step in and see what could be done to improve our throughput.”

Grant’s first step was to consolidate his programs to a single computer, designed by Hewlett-Packard to handle the temperature fluctuations and dust at ACRE.

Richard Grant showing technology

As part of AgIT’s increased efforts to help solve research problems through technical expertise, they established a wireless network that gave Grant high-speed Wi-Fi at his trailer. He was then able to remotely download data and check the status of his instruments.

Instead of staffing the site 24 hours a day, Grant only needed two undergraduate students to share four hours of daily work on-site. Grant said the connectivity is helping him reach his next goal: having each day’s data automatically processed early the next morning. The results could minimize wasted effort by showing when measurements would be unnecessary.

“For instance, if I was measuring today and the calculations tonight show that we had high emissions, I’d want to make sure we’re taking measurements tomorrow, even if it was the weekend and required overtime for the students.” Grant continued, “If I had essentially no emissions today, then I could tell my crew we don’t need to bother with tomorrow as long as the weather is going to be the same.

“My advice to anyone that starts looking at fully connected research is to be really tied in with what AgIT and ITaP can supply,” shared Grant. “My gut feeling was to just do it myself, but there’s no way that this could have been done by myself. It needs a team.”