Low-Cost Automated Agriculture

May 16, 2016 | ProgressTH Automating agriculture sounds like something only a large agricultural firm could do, and something only profitable if done on a monumental scale. But the reality is that technology has advanced so far, and prices have dropped so low, that even in the most remote regions of the planet you can set up and power an automated system.

With a little bit more effort, you can make that automated system a "smart" system by adding sensors that allows automation to react to feedback accordingly.

A good example of just what can be automated these days comes from Phetchaburi province, Thailand. While the infrastructure across the eastern part of the province is excellent, including in agricultural regions where irrigation water is pumped in through an efficient system of canals, in the west along the fringes of Kaeng Krachan National Park, the hilly terrain and sparse population makes building infrastructure more difficult technically and economically. One thing this region is not short of, however, is sunlight.

People that decide to do farming in this area have turned increasingly to solar power to both light up their homes and drive automation in their fields. This includes irrigation systems (water pumps and sprinklers) as well as automated organic fertilizer mixers and sprayers. Low cost solar panels producing as little as 12 watts can power a water pump, timers, and solenoid valves enough to cover small field. And while these systems are affordable, they are built out of a collection of subsystems hacked together by those with the knowledge to do so, but a mystery to traditional farmers.

To fix this disparity in technological know-how, a network of local organic farmers have decided to build a model automated organic farm, and use it to teach other farmers how make their own. By documenting the process, they hope the knowledge can be spread even faster over the Internet through blogs and social media.

From Automating Agriculture to Smart Farming

While sometimes the words are used interchangeable, there is an important difference between automated agriculture and smart farming. Automating everyday tasks by using timers does reduce the work load on farmers and make their work more efficient. But smart farming takes this to another level. It not only automates tasks like feeding animals, watering crops, and distributing fertilizer, it also uses sensors to detect changes in the environment and react to them accordingly. It can also log this data so that it can be used to detect trends and design better systems in the future.

Smart farms can more easily be added to existing automation than building an entire network of smart farms from scratch. As the Phetchaburi network begins expanding automated farming across the province, ways of integrating cheap and resilient sensors into automated farms will be likely next step.

And because farmers are gaining experience in using solar power to run automation, they will be able to easily implement other uses of solar power for large networks of distributed sensors, weather stations, and monitoring systems.

Just a few years ago, it would have been thought unlikely that solar powered automation would be turning up on remote farmland in Phetchaburi, yet today it is a reality. And today smart farms dominating the countryside seems difficult to believe, but in the future, they may well be commonplace.

We look forward to following the progress of the first demonstration farm in Phetchaburi and learning more about existing automation used throughout the organic farming network involved in this project.

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