Growing with Wi-Fi -- Literally

By Adam Stone

April 26, 2004

Researcher are experimenting with wireless networks that could make a big difference in the ways farmers run their fields and equipment in the very near future.

We knew Wi-Fi enabled mobility. But who knew it could it hit a moo-o-o-ving target?

That's what Stuart Pocknee is out to prove. He is one of several researchers nationwide who are experimenting with agricultural uses of 802.11, bringing Wi-Fi to America's farming community.

"A lot of farms will have a field here and a field there. It's maybe five miles to another field, and it does not make sense to string cable all over the farm," explained Pocknee. He is a scientific researcher at the University of Georgia attached to the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory .

Yet farmers need access to a range of data. They need to monitor pumps and other equipment, operate unmanned tractors and even download satellite data showing the condition of their fields. As things stand today, they have to make the long track back to the farmhouse each time they want to hook up with this information.

Researcher say Wi-Fi could make a big difference in the efficiency and accuracy with which growers can get to their information.

Take for instance the satellite work being done through the USDA at Mississippi State University. In a practice known as precision agriculture, "we are using multi-spectral imaging taken by aircraft and satellite to make decisions about which areas of the field need to be sprayed for potential insect problems or else whether an area needs to be augmented by applications of fertilizer," explained Dr. James McKinion of the Crop Science Research Laboratory in the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

In the current system, "you take the image in an airplane, the airplane lands, the image has to be specially processed and then you have to hand-carry the image to the grower who then gives it to the insect scout or crop consultant who goes to the field to check it out," he explained. By then, it's entirely possible that conditions on the ground have changed.

On one 1,500-acre test farm McKinion has deployed Wi-Fi using three repeater stations. In this arrangement he can download the image at the farmhouse and make it available it virtually immediately, anywhere in the field.

Analysts say they like the idea in principle, but they raise concerns as to the practical implementation of Wi-Fi in such settings.

"My father in law has a 400-acre ranch with a house at one end, and if you go to the other end, you are not gettingWi-Fi," said Iain Gillott, an independent consultant iGillott Research in Austin, Texas. It's not just the distance, which can be overcome with repeater stations: An 802.11 signal also would have to overcome a farm's varied topography, as well as any intervening vegetation.

"These are the big questions that we have," Pocknee acknowledged. But with a number of working demonstrations already up and running, he expressed optimism in the long-range potential for the idea.

For example, Pocknee's team in Georgia is working with a vegetable grower who has a wireless network arrayed around his packing shed, with more than half a dozen cameras incorporated into the network, plus additional cameras watching a chemical retainer shed and monitoring his tool shop. All these send their signal via Wi-Fi to the grower's office, allowing him constant monitoring of his various assets.

Also in Georgia, Pocknee's team is using Wi-Fi to operate an unmanned tractor. "I am using the LAN here and I hook in using Windows Sockets to talk to that tractor to send commends: Turn left, turn right, go to this degree, speed up, slow down. Then it sends back its data: I am heading in this direction, here is my location," he explained.

While cellular or other technologies could perhaps achieve the same ends as some of these Wi-Fi projects, "using Internet-based protocols means you have a very versatile system," said Pocknee. "You can do voice or video or transferring files or even sending commands."

Just because you can does not mean you have to, however.

"It sounds good, but I get the impression that maybe this is overkill," suggested Gillott. "A mesh network to download satellite imagery to a tractor? It sounds like a little bit of overkill."

With the farming industry already operating on lean margins, it remains to be seen whether the prospect of Wi-Fi networks -- however viable they may be -- will deliver the kind of economic return that justifies their widespread adoption.

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