How IoT technologies can help overcome DSS limits: the new way of irrigation

Agriculture’s path towards the digital world brings about a plethora of new opportunities and ideas. Emerging technologies, such as Decision Support Systems (DSSs), provide a great support for in-field activities but still require a significant human effort from farmers and agronomists. Improving the way of working through Decision Support Systems can really progress crop management in unprecedented extents. 

Our personal path into DSS development for precision farming stepped up thanks to the IoF2020 project. There we are designing and developing a brand new solution based on the Internet of Things (IoT), which overcomes issues related to commonly used DSSs, giving birth to a more “adaptive” solution. Thanks to IoF2020 we’ll soon be able to offer farmers an “adaptive DSS” that will generate mainly two important advantages:

  • Easier user-experience
  • Improved irrigation advice

Our long experience in developing Decision Support Systems for irrigation put us directly in contact with farmers and their specific needs. An effective technical solution must be accurate and inexpensive at the same time. However, commonly used DSSs for agriculture still show many issues and challenges which need to be overcome. At present, irrigation DSSs calculate their advices with data gathered through very expensive in-field hardware.

To elaborate the irrigation advice, systems have to process a coefficient named Kc, in order to calculate the soil evapotranspiration. But Kc calculation can be delicate, as it variates according to the different crop phases. Then, in order to calibrate the advice properly, the system must process soil data whose detection can be somewhat troublesome. The whole process is complicated and expensive, and that is exactly not what farmers need.

IoT to the rescue!

In order to overcome this problem in our use case called Fresh Table Grapes Chain, we have developed a solution based on IoT PAR sensors. Those sensors can automatically estimate the Kc coefficient, thus providing an improved irrigation advice with reduced costs compared to solutions not relying on IoT sensors.

How can these sensors be independent from expensive in-field hardware? Here is where the Internet of Things comes in handy. Our IoT sensors do not require an in-field physical data logger as they can communicate directly with a software data logger (running as a cloud application) through UNB technologies (Ultra Narrow Band). The installation process is a lot easier than with conventional sensors using cables as ours are powered with long-lasting batteries. Hence, farmers do not have to worry about their in-field network of sensors anymore!

What about the accuracy of irrigation advices? Our solution allows for the installation of a large number of sensors, improving the number of data acquisition points in the field. Knowledge about the soil water status is fundamental to estimate exactly when and how to irrigate but soil characteristics can vary greatly, even between close evaluation points. Having more data acquisition points ensures the best support for irrigation and this has become possible with sensors developed specifically for this use case.

Nevertheless, using new technologies while working on your crops may be tricky sometimes. This is why we have worked tirelessly on improving and simplifying the use of a DSS through NFC and QR code tags. Tags (as seen in the images) are attached to plants and facilitate the identification because farmers can easily scan the code with their phone through the IoF2020 app we’ve developed. The app shows the individual plant fact sheet, the detected data, plant health status and other useful information. In addition, farmers can add personal text notes, photos and audio messages. This customisation means data, that would otherwise be lost, can be added and allows both the data entry and irrigation feedback by each individual user.

Our work in this use case changed the way we design a DSS, as we are creating an “adaptive” DSS, which is able to auto-calibrate itself based on sensor data and an irrigation strategy defined by the farmer.

But it does not stop there. What we have developed and tested within IoF2020 will not be lost over time! Our goal is to integrate this effort into the BluLeaf DSS and provide the market with an IoT solution based on an “adaptive” DSS that will fully support EU farmers in the future!

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Marco Fina & Michele Toriello

Project Manager and Senior Technical Expert at Sysman P&S/Blueleaf

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