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Satellite Technology Making a Difference in Agriculture

By | January 11, 2016
      agriculture

      Irrigation system. Photo: Iridium

      [Via Satellite 01-11-2016] The Internet of Things (IoT) has been mentioned in almost as many conversations as small satellites over the last 12 months. It is a hot buzzword as the satellite industry looks to play in new verticals that need connected devices. One area where satellite and cellular technology could make a greater impact going forward is in agriculture. A company that is looking to take advantage of the need for this enhanced connectivity is Field Intell, an outfit that develops turnkey smart monitoring solutions for its customers. Field Intell works with companies such as IRZ Consulting, which provide water resource engineering with state-of-the-art technologically advanced irrigation, resource management (water, power and human) and conservation services to its agricultural client base.

      Art Gomez, Field Intell’s CEO discusses how he sees satellite making a difference. He said that in 2009 Field Intell started doing field intelligence, working with the likes of John Deere in terms of how they could improve irrigation techniques. Gomez said he saw there was an opportunity for telematics systems for agriculture, because the amount of territory being covered.

      “I saw an opportunity to bring satellite and cellular service into agriculture so that end users like IRZ could expand their reach. IRZ’s business is essentially consulting for a large number of agricultural businesses. So, they provide soil and moisture monitor readings, and they give customers recommendations on how they should be watering. What we do is that we put out a telematics system that is connected to a soil moisture monitoring probe and weather station. It gives them a sense of how much water the plant is using, and IRZ provide the grower with some advice in terms of how they should manage their crop. We collect information every 30 minutes and communicate it every two hours so they have an ongoing log on how water is percolating through the soil. By managing that, they maximize yield and have much more consistent output of products,” he said.

      Gomez admits that, in terms of agriculture, the use of satellites may even be seen as an industry “game changer” explaining that by using a cellular and satellite capable modem, you have coverage wherever you want to go. This alters the dynamics dramatically.

      “We become an enabler. That would not be possible with straight cellular. Satellite fills in the gaps. Growers want continuity of service, and the only way they can do this is through satellite. Cellular will never fill the gaps,” he said.

      Field Intell operates in both the oil and gas and agriculture markets. When it looks at its overall usage, the company sees 40 percent of all of the messages go out in satellite, 60 percent cellular.

      “When you look at it, that 40 percent, it is really a market we are able to capture or an opportunity to eliminate a service failure. Not having service has been a limiting factor for companies looking to expand their market. The end user’s tolerance in terms of their ability to communicate has gone down. They expect their satellite and cellular service to be up,” he said.

      The importance of having satellite is that Field Intell is able to win many more contracts as a result. “Most of the projects we win are because we are able to build in that 10 to 20 percent satellite. There is a skillset being able to work with satellite as opposed to terrestrial networks. Filling gaps with satellite can make a huge difference. The value is not to drive 50 to 100 miles to a location to get data. With satellite, you can get it right there.” said Gomez.

      End User Perspective

      As mentioned, one of the main companies Field Intell works with is IRZ, a subsidiary of Lindsey Irrigation. Gibb Evans, vice president and general manager at IRZ, said the advantage of using satellite for its business is that a lot of its clients are in very rural areas with poor or limited cellular coverage. So, this allows IRZ to go anywhere with its equipment and have it communicate back to its servers to provide information.

      “It really makes our offering a lot more flexible in what we are able to do. We marry it with a cell phone service. Cellular gives us the ability to communicate more often, and with more data, but using both satellite and cellular gives us more flexibility,” he said.

      By having satellite, IRZ can provide data from the correct points on the farm, rather than only from locations with cellular coverage. “We can’t allow a cellular signal to dictate where we are at. From a financial standpoint, this allows us to sell our service in more areas. Satellite has allowed us to be a lot more flexible in terms of gathering the data from the different data points in the field.” said Evans. “We are using satellite communications to collect data from the irrigated field to help clients better make decisions. We work throughout the North West of the United States, predominantly Oregon, Idaho and Washington, but we do have equipment and customers outside of that area.”

      Evans admitted agriculture is a tough, low-margin business most of the time and price is a huge piece of that, and that the company is being pushed to have a low-cost solution. “We are not needing super amounts of bandwidth, but we need it constantly,” he said.

      Field Intell and IRZ work with Iridium, which provides the capacity behind these services. John Gagliardo, director of M2M business development at Iridium, believes markets such as oil and gas offer great opportunities for a company like Iridium. “I think there are multiple parts of the oil and gas market that could attract satellite. It is about bringing back sensor information. You can look across production and transmission, and even field service units. Even in the heavy equipment space, you will find similar value propositions. There are M2M applications in the marine space with fishing vessels. I think it goes across a broad ray of applications,” he said.