Feature Story

Using The Internet of Everything to Make Your Garden Grow

by Anne Field

A look at how two small businesses are applying The Internet of Everything to agriculture.

While the Internet of Everything (IoE) has started to take off in such sectors as automotive and smart cities, it's made less of a splash in the areas of agriculture and farming—so far.  Still, according to Peter Cooney, practice director at ABI Research, some companies are introducing agriculturally- related uses for the IoE, which, according to some definitions, brings together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before. As you might expect, some farseeing startups and small businesses are getting in on the act. Here's a look at two.

A Garden Grows in Brooklyn

Amit Kumar grew up in southern California with a thriving garden in his backyard. Then, about six years ago, he moved to Brooklyn, where he worked as a software engineer and the closest thing to greenery was the trees on his block. After a while, he developed a hankering for his own garden. That's when he learned about hydroponic gardening, a method of growing plants in water using nutrient solutions, without soil.

Still, while the method provided a way to grow plants in a small space and with less water than conventional avenues, Kumar discovered there was no central place to learn about how to do it. Plus, success required constant monitoring of pH levels and the like. So, he started investigating ways to create an automated plant monitoring system. He met Michael Doherty, a hardware engineer, and learned about Arduino, an open-source microcontroller board that makes hardware and software design much easier. The two decided they could use Arduino to build a system with a base station connected to sensors that could monitor everything from a garden's pH level to its humidity, then relay that information through the cloud to growers' computers and, in many cases, automatically correct any problems that might arise—say, turning on a fan connected to the base station when the temperature rises to 90 degrees.

A year and half ago, they founded a company, Bitponics, and raised $20,000 through Kickstarter.  "Our major mission is to make gardening as simple as possible so people can have thriving gardens in their home," he says.

Central to their operation is a "grow plan", which Kumar describes as a "blueprint for how to create and take care of a garden from start to finish," with everything from what kind of lighting to buy to the type of nutrients needed and automatic scheduling for,  say, changing the lighting. For actions that the system can't take care of automatically, like adding water, it will send an email with an alert.

Example: A grow plan for lettuce or herbs calls for a three-ft. by three-ft. flood drainage system and a 24-gallon reservoir. After that, the plan includes steps for additional phases of growth, each with appropriate requirements. The two-week-long seedling stage, for example, needs 16 hours of light per day. Next phase, gardeners transplant the seedlings into a grow bed and there's an automatically triggered schedule for turning off and on lights and pumps.

But there's another element to his system. Through an online dashboard, users can connect to other growers and share their own grow plans. "User -generated knowledge is an important part of the Bitponic community," he says. Eventually, he hopes that the platform will "bubble up" the most effective methods for growing and that growers will connect to like-minded users nearby--and share their harvest with one another.

A Platform that Allows for Lots of Applications

Based in Zaragoza, Spain, six-year-old Libelium takes a different approach. The 35-employee company sells an open source sensor platform allowing for the development of multiple applications in 12 sectors, including farming and agriculture. "We try to connect the real world to the Internet," says co-founder David Gascon.

The platform includes a central microcontroller board, called a waspmote, and a "plug & sense" device to which 50 or so sensors potentially can be connected.  They, in turn, receive and relay information about specific conditions (like air temperature) to a gateway device called a Meshlium, which receives  the data wirelessly, then relays it through a router to a computer network.  As a result, you can put sensors in remote locations and have the information they pick up relayed to your Meshlium and, after that, to your computer anywhere in the world.

But the company's market isn't the consumer. It sells the hardware to system integrators who, in turn, target customers in specific industries with applications they've developed themselves.  That is, the sensor platform has an open-source API enabling third-party developers to create their own data base for storing the data and then an interface allowing end-users to receive the information in an analyzable form.

Take Alan Campbell, who runs Northwest Vineyard Consulting in Tualatin, Ore. According to Campbell, a big problem facing regional vineyard managers is how much water stress their vines experience.  "Grapes do better in a slightly stressed environment," he says. Campbell wanted a way to send sensor data about soil moisture  from vineyards to the computers of vineyard managers.  

To that end, he recently launched a pilot with six vineyards, where he places six sensors one, two or three feet deep in the soil. They detect such information as temperature, humidity level and moisture. The system then collects that intelligence every 15 minutes, ultimately sending it to vineyard managers in a form that allows them to make decisions based on the amount of available water in the soil and its impact on grapes.  Says Campbell: "We're hoping this has a big effect on the quality of the wine."

After all, the IoE isn't just about connecting devices, but also about the collection and use of data made possible by hooking up all those "things" in systems unavailable before.


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