Sensors in Smart Agriculture

Author : Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics

02 July 2024

Figure 1: The compact Basler dart area scan camera module
Figure 1: The compact Basler dart area scan camera module

The next instalment of this 4-part blog series looks at the potential for sensor technology to be employed in modern agricultural applications.

Smart agriculture will be of paramount importance as we try to ensure there are enough food reserves available to feed a growing global population. Sensors will be pivotal in this respect. Through the data that these devices can acquire, farmers will be able to increase their crop yields, while also reducing their consumption of resources like water, fertiliser, etc. This means farmers can produce higher-quality food in greater quantities, resulting in increases in their incomes. 

Sensor data can also contribute to reducing farm operations’ vulnerabilities to factors like drought, pests, diseases, flooding, etc. In addition, since agriculture is acknowledged as representing a significant source of the emissions which contribute to climate change, sensor devices can be used to help with alleviating this problem. As a result, food production can have less environmental impact and become more sustainable.

There are various different forms of sensor device that can be utilised in a smart farming context. The following sections describe some of the most prominent examples.

Image sensors
Crop cultivation is just one of the places that can benefit for use of vision technology. Camera-based implementations in nurseries and greenhouses enable the automated monitoring and analysis of plants during their key development phases. With regard to pest and harvest control, drones can utilise image sensing systems. Harvesting robots with integrated imaging technology, based on products like the Basler dart 30fps frame rate area scan camera units (see Figure 1) and specialised software, are starting to see implementation. The cameras enable such robots to accurately detect fruit, then analyse its ripeness to see if it is read for picking. They can subsequently help with controlling the gripper arms of these robots as they pick the ripe fruit. Likewise, imaging devices may be employed in livestock rearing, leading to a curbing of ongoing operational costs and increases in efficiency levels. For example, milking carousels have built-in cameras that allow milking utensils to be automatically attached to cow udders without the need for any manual intervention. 

Figure 2: LightWave’s SF45/B scanning MicroLiDAR sensor
Figure 2: LightWave’s SF45/B scanning MicroLiDAR sensor

LiDAR
Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) is a technology used to measure distances. In agriculture, a drone equipped with LiDAR sensing devices, such as the LightWave SF45/B scanning MicroLiDAR sensor (Figure 3), will continuously scan the Earth’s surface to measure the time it takes a reflected laser beam to bounce off the ground and return to the sensor. The data collected may then be combined with GPS positioning and inertial measurement unit (IMU) information to create a set of elevation points that can generate highly detailed and precise 3D models and maps. By having an accurate 3D elevation map of their farmland, farmers are able to locate natural resources (such as streams, etc.) and examine how even minor undulations in the land can impact water drainage and pooling.

Soil sensors
Different types of soil sensors can provide information about numerous key aspects of soil quality. These include:

- Moisture -The water content of the soil is the most important and commonly used parameter for characterising soil condition. This measurement enables an adjusting of the soil composition through economical water use and irrigation automation.
- pH -Soil pH, which can be measured using sensors such as the DFRobot SEN0249, determines the acidity levels present. This can impact upon the availability of both large and trace elements in the soil, but may also significantly affect the activities of soil-bound microorganisms. Whether too low or too high, pH will influence nutrient absorption.
- Temperature: Temperature is an environmental factor influencing plant growth, as well as also being one of the critical parameters for soil monitoring. It affects a series of physical, chemical and biochemical processes in the soil, which can have a bearing on crop development.

Conclusion
Sensors are critical to the running of intelligent agricultural operations. Furthermore, they are certain to play an essential role in future food security, as well as this sector’s fight against climate change.


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