Can smart farming MEMs technology help farmers have a happy harvest?

16-05-2018 |   |  By Mark Patrick

In the last few decades, electronic measurement and analysis has been increasingly deployed to improve agricultural productivity.

This use of precision agriculture enables farmers to determine the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides and weed killers required for each area within a field. This can help increase yields, and reduce the impact on the environment.

Real-time data gathering and analysis can be also used to monitor the status of soil, crops, and livestock in real-time, providing early warning of any problems.

The smart farming agriculture market is predicted by MarketsandMarkets research to grow from $5billion in 2016 to over $11billion by 2022 at a growth rate of over 13% per year. Recent technological advances, partly driven by the market for mobile devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) applications in agriculture, mean systems combining sensors, processing and communications are more readily available and lower in cost.

MEMS Technology

Much of the measurement and sensing required for agricultural applications depends on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). These combine mechanical structures with electronics to create smart agriculture sensors, controllers and energy harvesters.

These intelligent sensing systems have the advantages of small size, low cost and low power. The integrated electronics can provide control, data gathering, self-calibration and communication. On-board processing allows some computation to be done locally, providing immediate feedback and reducing the amount of data that has to be sent over the network.

To be useful, these systems must be low cost, easy to install and use, and have a long lifetime in the field (literally, in the field). They need to be physically robust and use little power; lasting for years on batteries, solar power or energy harvesting technology.

MEMS sensors include gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers as well as devices for measuring pressure, sound and humidity. They can also be used to build lab on a chip (LOC) systems.

A combined accelerometer and gyroscope, such as the Murata SCC2000, can be use to augment existing technology, such as GPS, by providing local information about terrain and allowing more accurate positioning for plowing and planting seeds.

Accelerometers are also used to monitor the activity levels of livestock; for example, how much time cattle spend walking, eating or lying down. The amount of time spent eating and ruminating (chewing partly digested grass) can be used ensure that the animals are getting adequate nutrition.

Also, the level of activity increases dramatically when cows are ovulating. This often happens at night, which means farmers may not be in time to get a bull to the cow. Real-time monitoring can detect when ovulation is happening and send an alert to the farmer.

Nine or ten months later, the farmer may use Moocall, a product which uses an accelerometer to detect the distinctive patterns of tail movement caused by labor contractions. The system can send an SMS text alert to the farmer about an hour before calving.

MEMS systems can also be used to monitor animal welfare, for example recording conditions such as temperature, humidity and noise. On the farm these will be reasonably constant but could be extreme during transport. The data can be recorded, along with GPS location information, to ensure that conditions are within the prescribed limits.

The lab on a chip (LOC) is a relatively new development. It integrates one or more laboratory functions onto an integrated circuit (IC) a few mm or cm in size. For example, a cantilever (a beam suspended at one end, like a microscopic diving board) can be coated with receptors that will bind with particular toxin molecules or viruses. The presence of the target molecule will change the resonant frequency of the cantilever so that the presence, and even concentration, of the pathogen can be detected. Multiple cantilevers can be constructed, each sensitive to a different pathogen. Other biochemical sensors use changes in capacitance as molecules bind to the structure.

These devices can be used for automated and high-throughput (ideally, real time) processing and screening using small (picoliter) volumes of the material to be tested. This enables fast analysis in the field, rather than having to send samples to a pathology lab and waiting days or weeks for a result. This technology has potential applications in food safety (checking for pathogens or contamination in food products), animal disease prevention (checking for mastitis when milking cows) and analyzing soil nutrient levels.

The predictions for the MEMS market are variable but different sources all forecast good levels of growth. For example, predict the market will be worth about $19billion in 2022 at a 9.8% annual growth rate, while Allied Market Research predict a growth rate of 11.1% per annum to reach $26.8 billion by 2022. Other forecasts show similar levels of growth and suggest a corresponding fall in average selling price.

There are many possible applications for MEMS and IoT in agriculture and farming. These technologies will have to play their part in allowing farmers to feed the world’s growing population by improving productivity and minimizing the environmental impact. As costs fall, the benefits of connected agriculture will be accessible to many more farmers.


Read More: Smart sensors tipped to transform UK horticultural sector

By Mark Patrick

Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark worked at Texas Instruments in applications support and technical sales roles. He holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.

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