Sensor-based data collection in farming using data collection sensors (Referred to as IoT or “Internet of Things” devices) is growing in all types of crops, as more and more AgTech companies release products to track everything from irrigation levels to crop vigor. In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of tracking data to make better decisions on the farm.[LINK] Like with any new technology though, it’s sometimes hard to evaluate its effectiveness. 

  • Did that thing I buy really help the bottom line, or was it something else I did? 
  • How much better was it than the one that cost half as much? 

Along with that, determining what to consider up front before fully committing capital to implement and scale the technology can also be tricky.

Based on working with several sensor vendors over the past several years, I’ve come to view every new AgTech solution through a set of five criteria, or considerations.  

1. Concentration & Cost

When thinking about rolling out sensor-based systems across an orchard or field, it’s important to consider what the ideal level of concentration would be and the cost that goes with that. If a weather station is being sold as the means to track data for micro-climates, how many weather stations do I need per acre? If the real benefit comes from one station per acre or block for example, what will the benefit be if I roll the solutions out over time? Will I get value from just one sensor to start? Or is there a minimal number of devices I need to get any kind of meaningful output out of the devices? It’s important to start slow with any new approach towards farming, but knowing the minimal required concentration to be successful, along with tracking the return on investment over time, is important in justifying the upfront time and money. If it takes ten devices to start, how long till I see results that could justify buying the next ten? And what does that benefit really look like at the end of the day? 

2. Connectivity 

Most sensors require either wifi or a cellular signal to transmit data, so it’s important you have the necessary connectivity across the entire area you plan to deploy sensors, both your initial and eventual planned area. It’s important to know upfront if you need additional fixed wireless towers, a mesh wifi network, or sign up for a cellular plan on top of purchasing and deploying the sensors. 

3. Utilization of Data

So you have installed the sensors, and now they’re connected and tracking information. What do you plan on using the data for? Is it mildly interesting information, or something that will really drive impact to your yield? Some people will track steps or calories with a FitBit, but interest will drop off after 4 weeks. It’s important to make sure your implementation won’t suffer the same fate. Thinking through the use cases for what to use the data for is important to maximize the value of what you’re deploying. It’s also important to discuss with the vendor how that data can be made available. 

Oftentimes, there will be a web-based interface with fixed reporting provided, depending on the sensors. However, discussing means to collect the data (ie connecting to the data in an application, and extracting it) is important if you want to perform your own analysis on the data outside of the fixed set of metrics provided. 

Furthermore, combining that data with other types of data you’re collecting is useful to determine the holistic state of a given acre vs having to bounce between multiple systems to get a full picture of what’s going on. 

4. Scalability 

I touched on this earlier in #1, but you want to get a clear idea of what it would take to scale the sensor system across your entire orchard in terms of cost, connectivity, etc. If you find your initial sensors are useful, make sure you have a clear idea on the roadblocks in front of you, if any, to continue buying and installing more sensors across your farm. 

5. Diversification 

Your final consideration involves identifying what different types of sensors you’ll need to capture a full picture of what’s happening. If you are just investing in soil moisture for the time being, will you eventually need a weather station nearby to track evapotranspiration? If you are using sensors to collect / track bug counts, will you also need to track plant vigor & growth to determine the impact of pest infestations? 

It’s certainly not required to track everything at once, but having a good idea on the types of things you want to track will help you assess what sensor combinations would make the most sense. It will also help you understand what vendors either provide multiple sensors or work together seamlessly to help give you more of a complete picture. 

If you’re only tracking one thing today, are you going with an option that’ll easily let you expand into other things later on? Or will you be stuck using / supporting several different point solutions and trying to make sense of the data yourself across all these platforms? APIs become an important ingredient to extract and combine data for a given acre. 

Though there may be additional things to consider when rolling out sensor-based solutions in your farm, these five points will help you get a clear idea of what you’re getting into and how to maximize the value of your investment. 

If you have any questions about sensors, or IoT, you can leave a message for me under the CONTACT ME above and I’d be happy to discuss your specific scenario in greater detail.