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Long-range networks facilitate convenient producer data collection

Farming has forever and will always require efficiency and vigilance. Producers have long looked for ways to keep one eye on their fields at all times, a need that led to the implementation of technology such as UAVs and soil sensors and testing. These advancements also present producers with the task of gathering data to one place to compare and make sense of it all, often without having connectivity in fields.  

To alleviate some of this challenge, a Purdue team has been developing and deploying a Long-Range Wide Area Networks (LoRaWAN) based system called the Purdue OATS DataStation (POD). PODs utilize commercially available sensors to measure insights and a LoRaWAN gateway to transmit it all in one place —even if there’s no existing infrastructure such as Wi-Fi or cell towers.  

“PODs are all about data collection, but the key is not the data specifically,” said Adam Schreck, a first-year master’s student who is working with Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor Dennis Buckmaster. “Put simply, it's a new infrastructure around collecting data that does so in an especially cost-effective way. It's cheaper; it's open-source; and it’s a lot of the things that are exciting in tech today.” 

The LoRaWAN project is funded by the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN). Producers from counties in WHIN are currently receiving LoRaWAN “starter kits,” which have everything they need to get a taste of how this technology could increase efficiency. The kits contain: The LoRaWAN gateway and antenna; a computer to control the wireless network and store all collected data; a rain gauge with soil moisture sensor; two Tektelic Agriculture Sensors for topsoil moisture, temperature, atmospheric temperature, humidity, pressure and light intensity; and two GPS trackers. 

 “These sensors and nodes connect to the LoRaWAN gateways in an unlicensed frequency band and the data resides on the POD computer. The data is viewable in real-time on a phone or a PC for easy access,” Schreck said. 

In addition to Buckmaster and Schreck, others working on the project include Digital Agriculture Extension Specialist John Scott; data/software engineer for the College of Agriculture Andrew Balmos; and Project Manager Landon Feese, who was hired via the WHIN partnership.  

“You can't easily collect this type of sensor data on a across a farm right now,” Balmos said. “There are solutions out there, but high costs or complex maintenance are required. The LoRaWAN sensors don’t use a lot of energy. They are generally battery powered with considerable lifespans. That makes it easy to get started with the kit’s five sensors, and when farmers see their potential  they can be more comfortable investing in an installation that spans all their acres and supports  hundreds or thousands of sensors across the farm. But without that initial positive interaction, it's hard for them to even appreciate what could be.” 

With LoRaWAN, farmers gain context for production decisions, such as when machinery can be run without compaction, when the temperature of soil is ideal to germinate seed or when to irrigate.  

“The sensors in the field will communicate their data to the data station, regardless of whether those devices are connected to the internet,” Schreck said.   

What is affected by internet connectivity is where you can access the data. If the data station is connected, then the growers may access it from anywhere an internet connection is available. If the POD is not connected, they will need to be within Wi-Fi range to retrieve it.  

“These are cloudless and can be truly internet-less,” said Buckmaster. “The information doesn't go to Amazon, Google or anywhere else, but just sits on that device until you download it.”  

 “The range of LoRaWAN varies with terrain and blockage like buildings or forests but should be a few miles.” said Schreck.  

To get started with these sensors, the rain gauge is fastened to a post and the probes pushed into the soil nearby. The GPS trackers can be placed on the roof of vehicles or just set on dashboards. 

A farmer can also obtain more exact soil and rain metrics from their sensors. For instance, the rain gauge measurements may be more exact than checking a public weather broadcast, which only reports rainfall in a general area. 

LoRaWAN kit installed on a portable stand. The kit includes a LoRaWAN gateway device and antenna; a microcomputer to store all sensor data; a rain gauge with soil sensor to determine soil moisture; two other soil sensors for topsoil moisture, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and light intensity; and two GPS trackers. LoRaWAN kit installed on a portable stand. The kit includes a LoRaWAN gateway device and antenna; a microcomputer to store all sensor data; a rain gauge with soil sensor to determine soil moisture; two other soil sensors for topsoil moisture, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and light intensity; and two GPS trackers.

Buckmaster said the real value of the LoRaWAN gateway is convenience, especially when it comes to the included GPS trackers. 

“The sensors that we're deploying are not detecting complex information,” Buckmaster said. “But one example of how this system makes the data and insights convenient and impactful is by providing answers or insights like ‘where did my tractor go and when did it go there?’ or ‘there’s no sense going to field B44 because it is too wet to work.’” 

When a producer sees the data provided by the sensors, rain gage or GPS trackers, they will do so through an open source app called ThingsBoard that can be viewed on a smartphone or tablet. GPS information is viewed on a satellite map.  

“A user looking at a map of their property can timestamp when a vehicle or implement was in a certain region, or how long it took to work on a particular field, and use that information to address any problems that come up in farm management,” Feese said. 

Rachel Stevens, manager of the Purdue Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE), has a LoRaWAN kit. She said using the GPS trackers on harvesters, trucks and grain carts is especially helpful.  

“The trackers give us a level of insight into our harvest logistics that we previously did not have,” Stevens said. “We used it this spring to track planting and spraying operations as well as ease communications when supplying our sprayer and keeping the planter filled with seed.” 

Scott believes the low-maintenance and easy installation aspects of LoRaWAN could be key to making more producers see and believe that tech on their farms can truly be worth the time and expense it takes to implement.  

“What I've been pushing from the get go is ‘how do we get farmers to realize that technology doesn't have to be big and expensive to make a big difference for their operation?’” Scott said. “So I’m excited to see how this might fit in with that concept and I'm excited these guys are talking about adding other sensors to it after the grant project is over.” 

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