A small white object sat on the table in front of Xin Qiao — an object with the power to increase efficiency and reduce cost to producers.
“They 3D print this shell, and that is the enclosure for the sensor,” said Qiao, who is a water and irrigation management specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.
The shell isn’t much bigger than the palm of a hand, but the sensor inside could be huge for farmers.
“The idea of this project is to build infrastructure for the communication of the internet of things in rural communities,” said Qiao.
Using real time sensors, cutting-edge weather forecasting algorithms and crop modeling, the hope is that researchers will be able to create better irrigation management technology. Qiao is Nebraska’s lead on the project, which is a combined effort between the Universities of Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois.
“Scotts Bluff County is the only experimental site for all three universities,” said Qiao. “We’re actually the only testing ground for the technologies we want to implement.”
His passion for the project was cemented with the collapse of the Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation canal in 2019.
“I was asked to do a yield forecast for 55,000 acres in western Nebraska,” said Qiao. “It was really difficult – without the individual field information, it’s impossible.”
The sensors will provide a way to collect data that can be compared over the years and help with more accurate yield predictions.
The project is being led by Jun Wang of the University of Iowa. He’s a professor in chemical and environmental engineering and physics, and Qiao said, he’s an expert in weather and climate.
“When he was looking at the forecasts we’re having here, he realized it’s been a little higher than the actual temperatures, especially during summer time,” said Qiao. “Water mist and water application will decrease the actual temperature. He thought if we had enough of these, we could have a better forecast on a much finer scale.”
In the first phase of the project, weather sensors developed by the University of Iowa were given to nine volunteers in the area who placed them in their backyard.
The sensors transmit data to one of two communication towers via wifi.
“Each sensor and each gateway, or tower, has a unique identifier as well,” said Qiao.
The sensor may detect both towers, but will choose the one with the best signal strength. There have been some challenges because of the layout of the land in the Panhandle.
“Topography plays a very important role in data transmission,” said Qiao. “If the land is lower than the antenna, it’s not an issue. If it’s higher and there is soil in between, it can be an issue.”
On the plus said, it is relatively in expensive to install more gateways in the area, he said.
Once the gateway receives the data, algorithms developed by Weizhen Liang, a post-doctoral research associate at PREC, turn the data in to visualizations which are displayed on a web page that can be tailored to the individual producer.
The web pages can provide producers with information beyond what the sensors are picking up, such as current market rates.
They are still perfecting the website, making changes based on feedback from area farmers. Data from an example farm is available to check out at phrec-irrigation.com, which also includes additional information about the Internet of Things and the sensor project.
“2020 will be the first year of a field campaign to actually test the sensors in farmers’ fields,” said Qiao.
New sensors are being developed that would not require wifi, instead depending on LoRa, which is a form of low power, long-range communication similar to those utilized by cell phones.
“The sensors will be installed in a field or at the edge of a field,” said Qiao. “I think this will be a lot more meaningful. Besides the weather sensors, we’re going to have soil moisture sensors in there as well.”
Producers who’d like to get involved in the project will receive the sensors for free. He said he’d like to get a large number of producers involved, even if they’re not near a gateway.
“We can provide installation to some degree as well,” said Qiao.
In the long run, the sensors will not only provide more data to help farmers get the most out of their fields, it will also save them money on data transmission and telemetry costs, he said.
Eventually, the project may go beyond weather and soil moisture data.
“If an irrigation district wants to monitor parameters like water levels or weeds at the gate – maybe we can design a sensor to recognize that.”
Farmers who’d like to get involved in the project are encouraged to reach out to Qiao at 308-632-1240 or at email@example.com.