Eight important attributes to check for when choosing a precision agriculture system

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evening sunshine over pink tulip field, Holland

We all realize that precision agriculture can deliver substantial benefits: better yield, better crops, savings substantial savings on water and nutrients. Basically – doing more with less. Precision agriculture relies on data collection so that smarter decisions could be made. A precision agriculture solution usually consists of several key components:

  • Sensors such as those that measure soil moisture, rainfall, wind speed, temperature, or other important parameters
  • Data collectors (sometimes referred to as ‘tags’) that read the sensors and report them periodically
  • Gateways that aggregate data from multiple data collectors and send them to the cloud. If the data collectors use cellular communications, gateways are often not required
  • Software, often accompanied by a mobile app, that allows viewing and acting upon the data

What parameters should be taken into account when choosing the right solution? Here are some items to check off:

  • Support multiple types of sensors. It is likely that a full precision agriculture solution will require several types of sensors. Does the proposed solution limit you to the sensors of a single vendor? Are you confident that the platform can support additional sensors as they become available?
  • Support multiple simultaneous sensors. It is often desired for the data collector to handle multiple co-located sensors at once without the need to place multiple data collectors in the same exact spot. For instance, some growers use three soil moisture sensors at once to measure the moisture at three different soil depths.
  • Use an everlasting energy source. Growers have plenty of tasks even without having to go out and replace batteries annually on every single data collector. Look for at least a 10-year lifetime between replacements, or better yet, an everlasting power source.
  • Aim for small size. When the data collectors are small, they can be installed practically anywhere, and they can be installed in a way that does not interfere with harvesting or other periodic activities. This point is also relevant to the power source: if the system uses large solar panels, they often need to be removed for harvesting, creating an extra step. Larger solar panels are also more susceptible to theft or vandalism.
  • Minimize the number of cables. This simplifies the installation as well as minimizes the risk of animals eating or damaging the cables.
  • Avoid cellular communications. Cellular communications are expensive. If every data collector has a cellular link – as some weather stations do – the monthly costs add up very quickly. If at all possible, limit the cellular connections to the gateways, especially if the gateways can serve a large number of data collectors.
  • Strive for long-range communications. If the data collector can send data over a long range – several miles – than a single gateway can serve multiple collectors. This both saves on gateway costs as well as the communications costs associated with the gateways. Technologies such as LoRaWAN can send data efficiently up to about 10 miles.
  • Own the data. Many commercial companies and academic institutions are developing sophisticated AI models to analyze the data collected from the field and make meaningful recommendations on what to do. Make sure that whatever system you use, you have full access to the data so that you can connect it to such future models.