Increasing efficiency is one way to improve your company’s bottom line, it means doing more with less. An Australian Financial Review article recently suggested that Australia could experience a $2.2 trillion productivity boost by 2030, provided businesses adopt smart technology and automation. Recent results show that Agricultures farmgate value has hit a record $66 billion from improved conditions throughout the cropping regions. Although to reach the National Farmers’ Federation’s bold target of $100 billion farmgate value by 2030, improvements in efficiency will need to be made.
Smart farming and precision agriculture involve the integration of advanced technologies into farming practices to increase production efficiency and the quality of agricultural produce. Smart systems rely on connectivity and the sensors capable of capturing the real time, daily, weekly, and monthly data on variables such as energy, climate, and water.
This new sensor and automation technology makes it easier to firstly understand how energy and water consumption is related to weather and climate by monitoring; and take action to optimise water and energy consumption.
Monitoring is the process of using sensor technology to access more information so more informed decisions can be made. Moreover, control is the use of technology to make changes remotely and even automatically.
There are many types of monitoring sensors available that can be used to provide data in real time. As well as real time energy meters, sensors can be used to monitor climate, plants, soil moisture as well as water flow in pipes, water levels and location using GPS tracking.
Real time energy monitoring has been a part of the QFF Energy Savers Program. An energy monitoring device is useful to capture the loads of all circuits, main consumption totals and renewable generation (if installed) onsite. The device aids to identify your main load, any grid imports, solar generation, and allowable export, demonstrated by the image below. Armed with this practice change can be made to better utilise the energy generated to avoid exporting to the grid at a low feed in tariff, if applicable.
A combination of sensors can be used in conjunction with spatial or drone mapping to give a comprehensive image of what is occurring on the site. Decisions can then be made based on the latest information.
The next level is automation and control. Real time meters can include switches to allow remote switching via an app. The system could also be linked to other sensors to provide greater control and automation, where switching can be made if certain conditions are met.
For example, you may decide to turn on a pump manually from a mobile device, or at pre-programmed times. New sensor technologies will allow switching automatically from pre-programed rules to irrigate during periods of solar generation while evaporation rates are low, to return the soil to field capacity based on soil moisture sensors. The pump could then be turned off when moisture reaches the root zone, as indicated by moisture sensors installed at the correct depths. This could lead to efficiency improvements in water, energy and fertiliser use as well as a potential increase in production and profit.
These technologies allow the development of Virtual Power Plants, a cloud-based distributed power plant that aggregates the capacities of embedded distributed energy resources (DER) like solar systems and batteries as well as managing loads. This serves to enhance power generation, as well as trading or selling power on the electricity market.
Capturing the data requires connectivity and understanding of the underlying principles. Connectivity through the communications networks is becoming increasingly important as these technologies become mainstream.
Generally, there are three types of network systems that are used to connect the sensors to capture the data and send to the cloud including:
- Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) – generally a cheaper alternative in comparison to LPWan as you can forego a gateway and tap into an existing cellular network such as Telstra’s. You can find out more about NBIoT HERE, and view Telstra’s coverage map to see if it is available in your area HERE.
- Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWan) – LoRaWan uses radio technology to send data back from end nodes (e.g. water sensor) to a central Wi-Fi or cellular connected gateway, typically in your house or a control box. The ‘data packets’ sent to the gateway are small, meaning low power consumption. They are not recommended for large data capture like video feeds but work well in other applications such as checking if gates are open or water troughs low.
- Cellular Systems – for instance 4 or 5G uses the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) system. Enables high-bandwidth, high-speed and large amounts of data to be sent. These factors tend to reduce battery life. The approach is like a gateway model with the data sent to a nearby tower or satellite and redirected to the end use.
It is important to consider the costs and return on investment if adopting IOT technology. With the use of these smart systems, farms would have real potential to reduce resource use, including energy. The data from these systems can be displayed in such a way that it is easier for growers to make decisions on farm and can help display trends over time. The use of technology provides agriculture with one avenue to mitigate against the risks of climate change and reduce carbon emissions through effective monitoring and control.
The QFF-led Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance recently hosted a connectivity webinar. It highlighted issues often seen in regional areas and the technical language around networks and systems. The webinar discussed the different types of services available such as mobile coverage or satellite connectivity and some of the issues surrounding access to the service. It noted that improvements are being made to connectivity in regional areas with projects such as the mobile blackspot program and other private solutions.