ROD ARMSTRONG Silicon Prairie News
Internet “things” permeate all types of industries, including agriculture. The sensors collect data on everything from soil moisture levels to irrigation pump performance to water levels in wells and storage tanks. Making this data actionable requires either visual inspection or wireless transmission over an expensive – and sometimes spotty – cellular network.
The start-up Waverly SmallData Tech has set its sights on a more reliable and much less expensive approach using a packet radio transmission network.
“We’re able to do all of this without spending exorbitant amounts of money just for internet access,” said CEO Neil Johnson. “We use our own packet radio backbone.”
SDT’s technology has the potential for a wide range of applications and locations. In the near term, the company is focused on agricultural technology, in areas where internet service options are limited, primarily Nebraska and western Kansas for the 2018 growing season.
“We’re focusing on areas without direct internet access, where wifi isn’t strong enough, where a cellular signal isn’t strong, or is prohibitively expensive,” said COO Matt. Bergmeyer. “It becomes a solution that works. We’re talking small data, not pushing Netflix videos.
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The SDT solution incorporates an international specification called LoRaWAN, which provides a standard for battery-operated wireless devices. LoRaWAN transmits small amounts of data farther than wifi and much cheaper than cellular. It is currently widely used in Europe and somewhat in the eastern United States
“Before long, LoRaWAN will be everywhere,” Johnson said. “But no one will compete in flyover states due to the lack of density.”
SDT works with both public bodies and private companies to deploy its solution, which includes both “objects” and the network.
“All we do is stuff that we developed in-house, the electronics, the antennas, the meter caps,” Johnson said. “The reason we did this in the first place is that in the United States there is no trick that does this. Other people will end up making the hardware, but we don’t care, because we want to make the network.
An example of hardware developed by SDT is an audio analyzer for irrigation pumps.
“The audio analyzer listens to the pump whether it’s on or off, listens to the electronic signature for changes that mean something could go wrong, and transmits the data,” Bergmeyer said. “Right now you might have to drive 10 miles to check it out. Basically anything that needs a toddler to watch it saves a trip.
Antennas placed at the edge of fields or at wellheads have a range of up to 10 miles, run on rechargeable batteries hooked to a solar panel, and do not require line of sight. They pick up and transmit signals from any device within range.
Johnson was asked how he knew which signals were coming from which devices.
“Typically, we get a list of devices from a particular entity, and when those devices show up, we know where they are and register them on the network,” he said. “We ignore packages that we don’t know who they are.”
The data is transmitted over a multi-hop packet radio network until it is finally connected to an Internet service provider and sent to SDT headquarters. From there, the data is packaged and sent to the user via an application programming interface.
“We push it through a web API to whatever device they’re using,” Johnson said. “It does not matter.”
The pressure to rationalize crop and animal production, as well as regulations on water use, makes it increasingly essential to have reliable and up-to-date data.
“Water requirements change depending on where a crop is in the growing process,” Bergmeyer said. “And if there’s an irrigation well in front of a housing estate, you don’t want to mount your pivot and have 20 neighbors pumping sand.”
Most of the applications supported by the SDT are for grain production, but they are also useful for the livestock industry.
“We automate the daily logs you have to do for animal production,” Bergmeyer said. “It becomes particularly expensive when the end market comes in for an audit. With this app, you press a button and data is compiled on things like when you checked the fence line or how you got rid of a dead carcass.
SDT has put together information packets and a website is under development. The technical team hails from Phoenix Web Group, a software development company that Johnson has operated for many years. PWG has worked on similar projects in the past.
“We have been working on this path for the past nine years,” he said. “We had gone incognito until recently.”
Silicon Prairie News says its mission is to increase the visibility of tech startups in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. It is owned by AIM, a non-profit community organization that promotes technology.