The Internet of things, stalk by stalk

The Internet of things (IoT) will enable profound improvements in productivity

Bob Dible is an engineer that now works on his family farm in Kansas. He describes the technological strides made in agriculture. “We generate GPS (global positioning system) yield maps using data from the combine as it harvests. That helps us determine what nutrients are needed the next season at various parts of our 4-square-mile farm. We then program those different nutrient mixes and locations onto the crop sprayer aircraft. As the crop sprayer flies over the field, it uses GPS to locate itself.” The airplane sprays out nutrients or pesticides based on the GPS programming. It dynamically changes the mix of fertilizer based on its location over the field.

The $900,000 Air Tractor model 802 has 1300hp and a payload of 9,249 lbs. In 2013 the plane can change its fertilizer mix every dozen meters. Dible, the former engineer, knows what is coming. “One day we will monitor and grow the corn on a stalk-by-stalk basis. When we plant crops, GPS with RTK (Real Time Kinematics) gives us 1-inch accuracy.” It’s not hard to see Dible’s vision even now. With today’s technology, a small autonomous robot could drive down the rows of wheat (Figure 1).


Figure 1. A team from the Robotics and Cybernetics Research Group (Technical University of Madrid) has built an experimental farm robot they dubbed the Rosphere.

Sensors on the robot could monitor each and every stalk of corn. Those robots can communicate with each other over a mesh network. A mesh network is like a chat room for gizmos. They identify themselves and their capabilities, and are then a shared resource.

But the real enabling technology is when we put all these mesh networks on the Internet. This is the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). If the robots that evaluate your individual stalks of wheat have a port to the Internet, you get a cascading set of benefits. The server computer on a farm can store and manipulate the corn stalk information. But it can also analyze those crop yields. And it might contact Monsanto’s computers to get the best price and delivery on fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides.


Figure 2. The tractor on the Dible farm, similar to this one, represents a capital investment of almost one million dollars.

The farm’s server computer can contact and execute automated negotiation with several silos in the area, to insure you get the best price for the crop. The tractor Bob uses on the farm has GPS as well (Figure 2). “GPS has really taken over in the past decade in farming. Not only do aerial sprayers use GPS, but we use GPS to spray with ground sprayers such as the John Deer 4720.”

One day ground sprayers will share information with the farm’s server computer. And that server can go on the Internet to order parts, or schedule maintenance on the mechanic’s smart phone while re-scheduling the driver’s time. Already the nearby dairy farm’s newest tractors and loaders “talk” to John Deere’s and Caterpillar’s local dealers.  “The dealers know where the machinery is, how it is running, and when it needs service,” reports Dible.

Perhaps your mesh network of corn examination robots finds a particularly virulent pest or fungus. They could go on the Internet and notify all the farms around yours, as well as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Perhaps you’re a cattle rancher. You use RFID (radio frequency identification tags) on each cow. Foreign countries might embargo your beef if any cases of Mad Cow disease strike anywhere else in your country. But with individual identification of the cattle, you can prove their provenance, and if your tracking systems are linked to the Internet, your sales to foreign markets will continue unimpeded.

Mesh network antecedents

There are antecedents for the mesh network and the Internet of things. In the 1970’s the American military was bedeviled by North Vietnam soldiers using the Ho-Chi-Minh trail to bring supplies south to support the war effort.


Figure 3. A patent filed in 1971 and granted in 1976 put vibration sensors into radio darts that could be dropped from aircraft.

So the Navy invented small darts that had seismometers inside (Figure 3, Reference 1). These darts could detect footsteps and vehicle traffic and communicated over a radio network. They formed a literal mesh, and although they did not connect to the yet-to-be-invented Internet, they did report to an overarching communications network.

The Mesh in space

The military benefits of a sensor mesh hooked to a network were apparent to people in the science and space communities. NASA Airborne Science operates a fleet of aircraft that can communicate with orbiting satellites (Reference 2). In 2004 NASA started missions that would allow the satellites, the aircraft, and ground stations to interact and communicate over a network. This lets NASA better track and understand hurricanes, polar ice conditions and other changing geophysical events. The real-time knowledge of events is an obvious improving, but a system like this also gives real-time knowledge of itself. Researchers might schedule a mission and only after the planes had landed did they see that the data form a sensor was corrupt of missing. Equally frustrating, they might not have seen that there was an event of interest they could have included in the mission if they only could follow it as the data was taken.


Figure 4. NASA uses the Global Hawk drone in a network of satellites and ground stations (courtesy Wikipedia).

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has made this NASA “network of things” even more useful. Now the operation of the Global Hawk UAV can be moderated and maintained by the network (Figure 4). While not the canonical “Internet of Things”, the NASA network, dubbed NASDAT (NASA Airborne Science Data Acquisition and Transmission) is an Ethernet network just like the Internet.

NASA connecting disparate things together such as airplanes, satellites, instruments, and ground control, presages what the Internet of things will do. With the NASA system, now the airplanes “know” what instruments they are carrying. The instruments in the plane can be fed location, speed, altitude and other flight parameters. The satellites “know” what airplanes and instruments they are connected to and the airplanes “know” what satellites are tasked to its flight. Missions can be far more dynamic and opportunistic. If ground controllers detect some condition or location, the instruments and airplanes can interact and modify the mission to get some important data collected. Flights can be changed in mid-mission by ground control, and all the varied implications will be “understood” by the interconnected instruments, airplanes, satellites, and people.

The Internet lets a mesh network see the future

The power of communications between networks is just one aspect that the IoT can do. Sprinklers are another application close to the hearts of farmers. Having sprinklers on a mesh network brings benefits. For instance, the network nodes that mount on the sprinkler could control and monitor water flow. They could report back to the farm server computer on usage and maintenance problems that reduce water flow. The mesh could even measure rainfall and adjust water delivery accordingly. The system becomes even more potent when you connect it to the internet. Now the farmer’s water system can connect to weather services that predict the rainfall. That way the sprinklers won’t waste water irrigating immediately before a big rainfall.

Industry Leads the Way

Industrial sprinkler systems for farms have led the way (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Crop irrigation systems have hundreds of microcontrollers in them. Now they will be linked to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Carl Giroux works for electronics distributor Avnet as a technical account manager selling into the sprinkler manufacturers. He estimates that a typical farm sprinkler setup boasts over 300 MCUs (microcontroller units), or about one MCU per sprinkler nozzle.

While industrial sprinklers for farms are already connected, they are a glimpse into what will become available for consumers. Ugmo makes a sprinkler system that is suited to golf courses and expensive homes (Figure 6).


Figure 6. The UgMO sprinker system measures ground moisture and adapts the water usage.

It has a network of moisture sensors that communicate over RF links to monitor and adjust water usage (Reference 3). This wireless sensor network can reduce you water usage 50%. With the constant cost reductions in electric products, you can bet this system will find use in more and more homes. You can also see how the next step is to connect this system to the Internet so home owners can get the same benefits as farmers and commercial installations.

The IoT helps consumers

Consumers will benefit the most from IoT.


Figure 7. This older pedometer uses sophisticated electronics to evaluate your motion and connects to your PC with a USB port. Future devices will wirelessly connect to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Dave Mathis is a software consultant in Silicon Valley. He advises his overweight friends to buy a pedometer, to keep track of how much walking they do (Figure 7). “Don’t get a 5-dollar pedometer— the sensor is a little ball and spring, like the tilt mechanism in a pin-ball machine,” he warns. “Get the 50-dollar pedometer.” Mathis notes the expensive pedometers use accelerometers, like a video game controller. These are much more accurate in counting your steps and level of activity. It’s only fitting that you would spend more money for something that helps keep you healthy. Of all the machines and gizmos you own, your body is the most important. Your automobile has millions of lines of software and dedicated hardware to monitor its condition. Your body deserve as much.

It’s nice if your pedometer can connect with your treadmill. That way the treadmill can adapt its routine to how much walking or running you have already done. Its better when your pedometer can communicate to your phone. Now the phone can tabulate and record your progress, and remind you when you lag. But it is a whole new opportunity when your pedometer can go on the Internet. Now your progress can go on your Facebook page. When you lag, your friends might send a tweet or email or even call you on a telephone to remind you to not give up. The exercise information from your pedometer might go to your doctor or pharmacy. That way they can adjust the dosages of medication based on your level of activity.

It’s pretty obvious that the industrial farm is leading the way for consumer technology. We can dream when auto makers talk about autonomous cars that drive themselves. But this is already reality on a farm. Dible notes that the tractors and combines use GPS to control steering. “This relieves the operator from having to concentrate on driving. It allows closer monitoring of the equipment which helps lessen mistakes.” Between seed technology, special fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, new methods, and improved control, farming is changing as fast as any other high-tech endeavor.  But it is also like working on an engineering program – lots of long hours, and attention to details. “The only thing about being an engineer is that you spend your time solving other people’s problems.  Now I have to solve my own problems,” quips Dible.

The IoT means safer roads

Already legislative bodies are having automakers look at having connected automobiles to provide for safer roads (Reference 4). The NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) knows that having vehicles communicate with each other will help reduce fatalities. This technology might first be applied to trucks and busses. But the benefits are obvious for all vehicles. Even motorcyclists will benefit from connected vehicles (Reference 5). Every year, thousands of motorcyclist die or get injured because the other driver did not see them. With connected vehicles the motorcycle can have the car warn the driver of an impending collision. Autos might even simulate the noise of a motorcycle in the surround-sound audio system in the car, to help call attention to the motorcycle.

Having the vehicles talk to each other is just the first step, similar to an occasional dynamic mesh network. When the vehicles can go on the Internet, it brings all the same beneficial network effects. You can collect, organize and share data worldwide. This might be anonymous data, to alert highway engineers of a dangerous intersection. Or maybe you will use the data to automatically lower your car insurance rates, since you have so few near-accidents on the road. There will be no need to worry about telling your teenager to drive safety. The car will do that for you, and even take the keys away if he is being reckless.

The IoT in your home

All this industrial and automotive technology is poised to leap into the consumer electronics world. We are on the cusp of an interconnected revolution. Gary Shapiro is President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). He recently wrote an article about smart homes (Reference 6). He notes that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and HGTV (Home and Garden Television) have partnered to build the first-ever high-tech smart home (Figure 8).


Figure 8. The HGTV Smart Home 2013 is intimately linked to the Internet and its own devices (courtesy HGTV).

“The HGTV Smart Home 2013 connects many of the home’s appliances and devices,” notes Shapiro. The outdoors has pool automation that controls lighting, temperature, and fountains from a tablet. You can operate the exterior awnings remotely on demand, but they also include sensors that automatically close the awning to protect against rain and wind. The garage door sends an alert to a smart phone when a door is left open, and families can control the home’s door locks remotely. The occupants can remotely program pre-set temperatures for the shower. The window shades are also connected, and you can raise or lower them remotely.

The Internet of Things will not only let each of these devices communicate to you, it will let them communicate with each other. That way, opening the window shades might cause the microcontroller running the shade to communicate to the air conditioner, to make sure the house stays comfortable with sunlight streaming into the rooms.

Shapriro notes “Who knows, we might surpass the The Jetsons, and the consumer electronics industry might revolutionize the concept of smart living altogether.”  If Dible’s farm can monitor and care for each stalk of corn, it’s not hard to see that our homes and cars will monitor and care for each of their occupants. The Internet of things is ready to let us make another great stride in human progress.


1 Theodore C. Herring, A. Reed 3rd Edgar “Acoustic and seismic troop movement detector.”  Patent US3984804 A. 29 Nov 1971.

2 Forgione, Joshua B, Sorneson, Carl, Bahl, Amit, “Network Interface Links Sensor-Web Instruments,” NASA Tech Briefs, pg 14, July 2013.





13 thoughts on “The Internet of things, stalk by stalk

  1. Pingback: The Internet of things, stalk by stalk | Richards Innovation Blog

  2. Pingback: Paul Rako: The Internet of things (IoT) will enable profound improvements in productivity | Design Interaction

  3. Pingback: Will cyborg plants monitor our world? | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  4. Pingback: Open source aquaponics with APDuino | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  5. Pingback: Agricultural monitoring with Atmel AVR
 | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  6. Pingback: Arduino-based farming @ Roberts Farm

 | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  7. Pingback: Recycled greenhouse goes off-the-grid with Uno | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  8. Pingback: Building a DIY moisture monitor

 | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  9. Pingback: ATtiny84 MCU powers Open Garden hardware | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  10. Pingback: Security, the essential pillar in the Internet of Things | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  11. Pingback: An aquaponics and hydroponics sensor platform for Makers | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  12. Pingback: Finger on the IoT Pulse: ‘Presence’ Functionality | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s