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Wireless Technology Changing Irrigation Management

Randy Sukow Apr 25, 2016

Advanced communications technology advancing agriculture is nothing new. Farmers have been using GPS systems on their tractors to cut more precise and efficient rows for the last two decades. The current trend is toward applying wireless technology to farming practices, especially toward more environmentally friendly irrigation practices, according to a new report, “The Farmer and the Data: How Wireless Technology is Transforming Water Use in Agriculture.”

Irrigator“The uses and benefits of wireless technology for irrigation management vary geographically. Some states, such as California, can rely on wireless technology to manage water use in the face of drought while others, such as Minnesota, can rely on wireless technology to manage water use to avoid nutrient run-off and groundwater contamination,” according to the study by the Brattle Group prepared for the CTIA Wireless Foundation.  “In all cases, better management of irrigation, and the incorporation of wireless technology, is likely to bring significant benefits.”

The study focuses on how some farms use current 3G or 4G mobile data networks to track real time data in their fields. Moisture-sensing devices allow farmers from remote positions at any time in the day to more accurately determine when to irrigate and when to shut the water down. For example, a case study in the CTIA Foundation report mentions a farmer who controlled his irrigation system smoothly from more than 100 miles away in a hospital while undergoing cancer treatments.

So far only 10 percent of farms using irrigation systems also use advanced wireless techniques. Part of the problem is lack of commercial wireless coverage in some rural areas. The report cites U.S. Department of Agriculture sources finding that only 67 percent of American farms had access to wireless data networks as of 2013. That was actually a significant improvement from 51 percent in 2005. “The use of wireless technology among farmers continues to rise; 29 percent of farms reported wireless as their primary method of accessing the Internet in 2015,” according to the report.

In areas where commercial networks do not reach, it may be possible to engineer similar results applying smart electric meters operating over private wireless links. NRTC’s AMI partner Sensus has worked with local water authorities to deploy smart meters for irrigation systems, which provides for significant savings in water and electricity usage.

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