“Precision farming,” also known as site-specific management, describes a bundle of new information technologies applied to the management of large-scale, commercial agriculture. Precision farming technologies include, for example: personal computers, satellite-positioning systems, geographic information systems, automated machine guidance, remote sensing devices and telecommunications.
A Brief Case Study of Precision Farming
“It is 5 a.m. A Midwest farmer sips coffee in front of a computer. Up-to-the-minute satellite images show a weed problem in a field on the north-west corner of the farm. At 6:30 a.m., the farmer drives to the exact location to apply a precise amount of herbicide.” - Illinois Laboratory for Agricultural Remote Sensing press release.
How Does Precision Farming Work?
Precision farming relies upon intensive sensing of environmental conditions and computer processing of the resulting data to inform decision-making and control farm machinery. Precision farming technologies typically connect global positioning systems (GPS) with satellite imaging of fields to remotely sense crop pests or evidence of drought, and then automatically adjust levels of irrigation or pesticide applications as the tractor moves around the field. Yield monitors fitted to combine harvesters measure the amount and moisture levels of grains as they are harvested on different parts of a field, generating computer models that will guide decisions about application or timing of inputs.
What are the Benefits of Precision Agriculture?
Precision agriculture promises higher yields and lower input costs by streamlining agricultural management and thereby reducing waste and labour costs. It also offers the potential to employ less skilled, and therefore cheaper, farm machinery operators since, theoretically, such systems can simplify and centralize decision-making. In the future, precision farming will resemble robotic farming as farm machinery is designed to operate autonomously, continuously adapting to incoming data.
The Role of Networks of Wireless Nanosensors in Precision Farming
If they function as designed, ubiquitous wireless sensors will become an essential tool for bringing this vision of precision farming to maturity. When scattered on fields, networked sensors are expected to provide detailed data on crop and soil conditions and relay that information in real time to a remote location so that crop scouting will no longer require the farmer (or agribusiness executive) to get their boots dirty. Since many of the conditions that a farmer may want to monitor (e.g., the presence of plant viruses or the level of soil nutrients) operate at the nano-scale, and because surfaces can be altered at the nano-scale to bind selectively with particular biological proteins, sensors with nano-scale sensitivity will be particularly important in realizing this vision.
‘Smart Fields’ Monitored by Wireless Nanosensors and the USA’s Plans for a ‘Smart Field System’
Leading the choir of enthusiasm for “smart fields” laced with wireless nanosensors is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In what they originally dubbed “Little Brother Technology,” the agency identifies agricultural sensor development as one of their most important research priorities. The USDA is working to promote and develop a total “Smart Field System” that automatically detects, locates, reports and applies water, fertilisers and pesticides - going beyond sensing to automatic application.
Which Companies are Developing Wireless Sensor Networks for the Agricultural Sector?
Industry is already experimenting with wireless sensor networks for agriculture. Computer chip maker Intel, whose chips have nano-scale features, has installed larger wireless sensor nodes (called ‘motes’) throughout a vineyard in Oregon, USA. The sensors measure temperature once every minute and are the first step towards fully automating the vineyard. Intel also employs ethnographers and social scientists who study behaviour of vineyard workers to help design the system. Intel’s vision for wireless networks is ‘proactive computing’ - ubiquitous systems that anticipate the needs of the farmer and act before they are asked to do so. In a similar venture, multinational consulting firm Accenture has partnered with mote-maker Millennial Net to run a network of sensors across a vineyard in California. According to Crossbow Technologies, their motes can be used on the farm for irrigation management, frost detection and warning, pesticide application, harvest timing, bio-remediation and containment, and water quality measurement and control.
What is ‘Smart Dust’ and Who Invented This Technology?
The idea that thousands of tiny sensors could be scattered like invisible eyes, ears and noses across farm fields and battlefields sounds like science fiction. But ten years ago, Kris Pister, a professor of Robotics at University of California Berkeley secured funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop autonomous sensors that would each be the size of a match head. Using silicon-etching technology, these motes (“smart dust” sensors) would feature an onboard power supply, computation abilities and the ability to detect and then communicate with other motes in the vicinity. In this way the individual motes would self-organize into ad hoc computer networks capable of relaying data using wireless (i.e., radio) technology.
Potential Industry Applications for ‘Smart Dust’ Networks
DARPA’s immediate interest in the project was to deploy smart dust networks over enemy terrain to feed back real time news about troop movements, chemical weapons and other battlefield conditions without having to risk soldiers’ lives. However, like that other groundbreaking DARPA project, the Internet, it swiftly became clear that tiny surveillance systems would have endless civilian uses, from monitoring energy-use in office buildings to tracking goods through a supply chain to environmental data monitoring.
Industry Says that Wireless Nanosensors Will Play a Massive Part in Future Everyday Life
Today, wireless micro and nanosensors like the ones pioneered by Kris Pister are an area of intense research for large corporations from Intel to Hitachi, a focus of development at all US national defence laboratories, and in fields as wide apart as medicine, energy and communications. Touted by ‘The Economist’, ‘Red Herring’ and ‘Technology Review’ as the ‘next big thing,’ ubiquitous wireless sensors embedded in everything from the clothes we wear to the landscapes we move through could fundamentally alter the way we relate to everyday goods, services, the environment and the State.
What is ‘Ambient Intelligence’?
The aim is to develop what researches call ‘ambient intelligence’ - smart environments that use sensors and artificial intelligence to predict the needs of individuals and respond accordingly: offices that adjust light and heating levels throughout the day or clothes that alter their colours or warmth depending on the external environment. A simple example of ambient intelligence already in use is an airbag system in newer cars, which “senses” an imminent crash and deploys a pillow to soften the blow to the driver.
How Might ‘Ambient Intelligence’ Be Used in Future Nano Products?
Kris Pister’s dust motes are currently far from nano (they are roughly coin-sized), but they have already been licensed to commercial companies. In 2003 Pister established a “smart dust” spin-off company, Dust, Inc. For a light taster of a society steeped in ambient intelligence, Kris Pister makes the following speculations:
• “In 2010 a speck of dust on each of your fingernails will continuously transmit fingertip motion to your computer. Your computer will understand when you type, point, click, gesture, sculpt, or play air guitar.
• In 2010 infants will not die of SIDs (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), or suffocate, or drown, without an alert being sent to the parents. How will society change when your neighbor’s pool calls your cell phone to tell you that Johnny is drowning and you’re the closest adult that could be located?
• In 2020 there will be no unanticipated illness. Chronic sensor implants will monitor all of the major circulator systems in the human body, and provide you with early warning of an impending flu, or save your life by catching cancer early enough that it can be completely removed surgically.”
‘Smart Dust’: Companies Who Manufacture It, Dimensions and Current Prices
• Currently available from: Crossbow Technologies, Dust, Inc., Ember and Millennial Net.
• Coming soon: Motorola, Intel and Philips.
• Current Size: Crossbow’s motes are currently the size of a bottle-top. According to the CEO of Crossbow, Mike Horton, the size is expected to shrink to the size of an aspirin tablet – even a grain of rice – over the next few years.
• Current Prices: Crossbow Motes (the entire smart dust sensor - processor, radio, battery, and sensor) range from $40 to $150 depending on quantity ordered. Crossbow expects prices to fall below $10 in near future.
Current Industry Applications for ‘Smart Dust’
‘Smart Dust’ has so far been sprinkled on:
• Oil tankers: The 885-foot oil tanker, ‘Loch Rannoch’, operated by BP in the North Atlantic, has been outfitted with 160 wireless sensor motes that measure vibrations in the ship’s engine to predict equipment failures. The company is also considering using smart dust networks in over 40 other projects in the next three years.
• Wildlife Habitats: At Great Duck Island off the coast of Maine (USA) a network of 150 wireless sensor motes have been monitoring the micro-climates in and around nesting burrows used by seabirds. The aim is to develop a habitat monitoring kit that allows researchers to monitor sensitive wildlife and habitats in non-intrusive and non-disruptive ways.
• Bridges: In San Francisco (USA) a network of sensor motes has been installed to measure the vibration and structural stresses on the Golden Gate Bridge as a form of proactive maintenance.
• Redwood trees: In Sonoma County, California (USA), researchers have strapped 120 motes to redwood trees in order to wirelessly and remotely monitor the micro-climate around the trees from Berkeley, over 70 km away.
• Supermarkets: Honeywell is testing the use of motes to monitor grocery stores in Minnesota (USA)
• Ports: The US Department of Homeland Security plans to test the use of motes in Florida ports and in shipping containers.