Generating innovative ideas

The use of Technology in Farming

By: Edson DaSilva
Project Engineer

11th June 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Smart Cities

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.
After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.

After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

How to Harvest Infinite Power!

By: Henry Wadsworth
Project Engineer

9th May 2019

6 minute read

Home » Insights » Smart Cities

Wouldn’t it be amazing if an electronic device could run forever, for free, on an unlimited supply of energy? No batteries to replace and no plug socket to be tethered to. This might seem like a flight of fancy, but with modern energy harvesting techniques, it is a much more realisable dream.

Energy harvesting is the capture and storage of energy from the environment which can be used to power an electronic device. This is not a new idea, we are all familiar with the idea of using solar panels to charge a battery, but there are many other energy sources to take advantage of such as kinetic, thermal, and electromagnetic energy. Kinetic energy such as that produced by wind can easily be harvested using a turbine, but even vibrations can be converted into a voltage using a piezo-electric transducer so any form of movement has the potential to power electronics. Thermal energy can be converted into electrical energy using a thermoelectric generator (TEG) which is able to produce energy from heat which would normally be lost to the environment. Electromagnetic energy is present all around us, for example, in the form of radio waves and microwaves which we rely on for wireless communications from WIFI to FM radio. In most circumstances this amount of energy is so small that it cannot readily be captured and stored, however, if a device is located within a reasonable distance of a powerful transmitter, it is possible to provide enough energy to keep a low-power device alive.

This is especially the case with modern integrated circuits designed for power harvesting which are enabling increasingly tiny amounts of energy to be gradually accumulated over time in a battery, or super-capacitor in order to power a low-power device almost indefinitely while the energy source is present. In many cases it is also possible to combine multiple energy harvesting sources, which can be useful in environments where the energy sources may be changing, such as if the device is moving through different environments. For example, solar could be combined with piezo-electric, so that the device can harvest sunlight when the sun is visible, and vibration energy when the device is being moved (perhaps the device is worn by a human, or transported on a vehicle).

Energy harvesting typically refers to small scale harvesting of energy as described above, however, larger power sources can also be harnessed. For example, the power flowing through a cable can be harnessed by placing a current transformer around the cable. We recently developed a system using this technology to supply energy in an underground environment where no other power supply was reliably available. This can be a useful way of retro-fitting a device where power cables already exist, but with no other convenient way to tap the energy from the cables. This method has the potential to supply large amounts of power to a device, depending on the amount of current flowing through the cables.

Energy harvesting is a particularly valuable technique for circumstances where it is not possible to carry out maintenance on a device to replace a battery. For example, the device may be inaccessible or just impractical and expensive to access if there are a large number of devices – which is likely to become an increasingly significant problem as inexpensive IOT devices are used for large monitoring networks.

Energy harvesting techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated which, coupled with a low power microprocessor makes it possible to power devices with energy sources which previously would be considered impractical.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if an electronic device could run forever, for free, on an unlimited supply of energy? No batteries to replace and no plug socket to be tethered to. This might seem like a flight of fancy, but with modern energy harvesting techniques, it is a much more realisable dream.

Energy harvesting is the capture and storage of energy from the environment which can be used to power an electronic device. This is not a new idea, we are all familiar with the idea of using solar panels to charge a battery, but there are many other energy sources to take advantage of such as kinetic, thermal, and electromagnetic energy. Kinetic energy such as that produced by wind can easily be harvested using a turbine, but even vibrations can be converted into a voltage using a piezo-electric transducer so any form of movement has the potential to power electronics. Thermal energy can be converted into electrical energy using a thermoelectric generator (TEG) which is able to produce energy from heat which would normally be lost to the environment. Electromagnetic energy is present all around us, for example, in the form of radio waves and microwaves which we rely on for wireless communications from WIFI to FM radio. In most circumstances this amount of energy is so small that it cannot readily be captured and stored, however, if a device is located within a reasonable distance of a powerful transmitter, it is possible to provide enough energy to keep a low-power device alive.

This is especially the case with modern integrated circuits designed for power harvesting which are enabling increasingly tiny amounts of energy to be gradually accumulated over time in a battery, or super-capacitor in order to power a low-power device almost indefinitely while the energy source is present. In many cases it is also possible to combine multiple energy harvesting sources, which can be useful in environments where the energy sources may be changing, such as if the device is moving through different environments. For example, solar could be combined with piezo-electric, so that the device can harvest sunlight when the sun is visible, and vibration energy when the device is being moved (perhaps the device is worn by a human, or transported on a vehicle).

Energy harvesting typically refers to small scale harvesting of energy as described above, however, larger power sources can also be harnessed. For example, the power flowing through a cable can be harnessed by placing a current transformer around the cable. We recently developed a system using this technology to supply energy in an underground environment where no other power supply was reliably available. This can be a useful way of retro-fitting a device where power cables already exist, but with no other convenient way to tap the energy from the cables. This method has the potential to supply large amounts of power to a device, depending on the amount of current flowing through the cables.

Energy harvesting is a particularly valuable technique for circumstances where it is not possible to carry out maintenance on a device to replace a battery. For example, the device may be inaccessible or just impractical and expensive to access if there are a large number of devices – which is likely to become an increasingly significant problem as inexpensive IOT devices are used for large monitoring networks.

Energy harvesting techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated which, coupled with a low power microprocessor makes it possible to power devices with energy sources which previously would be considered impractical.

Is the Technology Industry Doing Enough for Humanity?

Nicholas Koiza - Head of Business Development, Security

By: Nick Koiza
Head of Security Business

10th July 2018

Home » Insights » Smart Cities

This Thursday, I am co-chairing the Cambridge Wireless event: “Drones: The Good, the bad and the scary” as part of my work as a Security SIG champion.

This has prompted me to think about our evolving technology industry; as we are successfully maturing, are we giving enough back? Do we have a duty to use our technical expertise and knowledge and apply them for the betterment of humanity?

Commercial drone manufacturers DJI Technology conducted a survey in early 2017 looking at the number of lives saved by drones. The report states that at least 59 people have been rescued from life-threatening conditions around the Globe.

The clear conclusion is that drones are regularly saving lives around the world. This is occurring even though professional rescue crews are just beginning to adopt UAS technology, and in many cases are relying on bystanders or volunteers to provide lifesaving assistance.”

Since then however, it is estimated that at least 133 people have been rescued. The numbers are rising, as the number of drones being utilised increases. In June this year, it was recorded that, globally, public safety drones saved four lives in one day alone – great news. The latest UK case was the rescue of a missing man who had become stuck in deep marshland in Norfolk. The man was stranded for 22 hours before being found by a police surveillance drone.

Life-changing technologies are being used but not in the life-changing sectors of Charity and Humanitarian Aid.

For years now companies, like Matternet, have been looking at drone and other technologies and how it can impact positively in the charity sector. It shouldn’t take much for engineering companies to assess their technology and work out how it can be applied for less profitable, but very worthy causes.

At Plextek we have a range of bespoke technology solutions that could be reapplied with some thought:

Last mile response: in a crisis, either environmental or war, drones can provide autonomous humanitarian aid into areas where it might be too dangerous for aid workers to enter.

Surveillance: For early identification/warning systems in environmental disaster areas. Or to enter the location of a disaster to assess the situation and safety for humans.

Identification: Possible human identification in the case of human trafficking, or animal ID and tracking for monitoring the numbers of endangered species.

First Response: First response units like lifeboats, mountain rescue or fire service can all use technology to enhance their search and rescue capabilities. The RNLI have already used drones to find people lost at sea but is the technology achievable at scale as the take up is slow across the board.

We need to make the latest engineering developments accessible for a wider range of applications. But what is the motivation to invest company time and money in applying technology to the charity/not-for-profit sector?

I guess the larger the company, the more shareholders there are to answer to. Ideally, the technology industry could pull together and work on a better future. It’s not going to be politicians. It’s up to us.

If you’d like to chat further, come and see me at the event, or get in touch, email: nicholas.koiza@plextek.com or call: +44 (0) 1799 533 266

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This Thursday, I am co-chairing the Cambridge Wireless event: “Drones: The Good, the bad and the scary” as part of my work as a Security SIG champion.

This has prompted me to think about our evolving technology industry; as we are successfully maturing, are we giving enough back? Do we have a duty to use our technical expertise and knowledge and apply them for the betterment of humanity?

Commercial drone manufacturers DJI Technology conducted a survey in early 2017 looking at the number of lives saved by drones. The report states that at least 59 people have been rescued from life-threatening conditions around the Globe.

The clear conclusion is that drones are regularly saving lives around the world. This is occurring even though professional rescue crews are just beginning to adopt UAS technology, and in many cases are relying on bystanders or volunteers to provide lifesaving assistance.”

Since then however, it is estimated that at least 133 people have been rescued. The numbers are rising, as the number of drones being utilised increases. In June this year, it was recorded that, globally, public safety drones saved four lives in one day alone – great news. The latest UK case was the rescue of a missing man who had become stuck in deep marshland in Norfolk. The man was stranded for 22 hours before being found by a police surveillance drone.

Life-changing technologies are being used but not in the life-changing sectors of Charity and Humanitarian Aid.

For years now companies, like Matternet, have been looking at drone and other technologies and how it can impact positively in the charity sector. It shouldn’t take much for engineering companies to assess their technology and work out how it can be applied for less profitable, but very worthy causes.

At Plextek we have a range of bespoke technology solutions that could be reapplied with some thought:

Last mile response: in a crisis, either environmental or war, drones can provide autonomous humanitarian aid into areas where it might be too dangerous for aid workers to enter.

Surveillance: For early identification/warning systems in environmental disaster areas. Or to enter the location of a disaster to assess the situation and safety for humans.

Identification: Possible human identification in the case of human trafficking, or animal ID and tracking for monitoring the numbers of endangered species.

First Response: First response units like lifeboats, mountain rescue or fire service can all use technology to enhance their search and rescue capabilities. The RNLI have already used drones to find people lost at sea but is the technology achievable at scale as the take up is slow across the board.

We need to make the latest engineering developments accessible for a wider range of applications. But what is the motivation to invest company time and money in applying technology to the charity/not-for-profit sector?

I guess the larger the company, the more shareholders there are to answer to. Ideally, the technology industry could pull together and work on a better future. It’s not going to be politicians. It’s up to us.

If you’d like to chat further, come and see me at the event, or get in touch, email: nicholas.koiza@plextek.com or call: +44 (0) 1799 533 266

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