Tag Archives: ag tech

Ag department honcho says rural communities need faster broadband

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The Forbes Ag Tech Summit opened in Salinas yesterday, for the fourth year in a row. The headline act was editor-in-chief Steve Forbes’ interview with Stephen Censky, the deputy secretary of the federal agriculture department.

Agricultural technology depends on broadband, Censky said, but access is a serious challenge in the rural areas where it will be deployed. Of the 24 million people in the U.S. who don’t have broadband available to them, 80% live in rural areas.

It’s an even bigger problem when service levels are considered. Censky reiterated the agriculture department’s position that the minimum needed – for all rural users, not just tech savvy growers – is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

That level of service is often unavailable in rural communities, and even though the Federal Communications Commission agrees that 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up is the proper “baseline” speed for 2018, it reckons communities with 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up to be “served”. The California legislature sets the bar even lower at 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.

Figuring out where to find it can be a problem. Censky pointed out that the broadband availability data collected by the Federal Communications Commission comes from the companies themselves, and there’s no easy way to confirm that it’s accurate, or to drill down to see who can and can’t get it.

“There might be a location or two that have broadband, but not whole counties”, Censky said. “For agriculture to succeed in this day and age…you do need reliable access to broadband…for all precision agriculture, you need broadband”.

Censky held out the hope of more federal dollars for broadband infrastructure development, saying there’s $1.4 billion in the agriculture department’s budget for broadband grants and loans. How much of that money is realistically available in California is an open question, though. He had high – and well deserved – praise for rural electric cooperatives, which are taking the lead in broadband deployment in many parts of the U.S. Unfortunately, utility co-ops are rare in California – there are only three.

Fresno County grower quantifies IoT ag tech benefit

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An agricultural technology experiment is underway in Reedley, in Fresno County. Fybr, a low power wireless networking company, is working with DaCapo Agricultural Corporation to determine whether Internet of things (IoT) enabled soil and temperature sensors and irrigation controls produce a real benefit, and if so, how much. So far, the answer is yes and significantly.

Fybr installed water, moisture and temperature sensors at different depths in the ground and temperature sensors in the canopy of a dozen plum and grape orchards, and flow monitors and valves in irrigation pipes. Those were linked back to an Alexa-enabled, voice activated control system via Fybr’s low power, low bit rate wireless network. It’s based on the LoRa standard and uses Semtech chips, but Fybr made its own, proprietary modifications to reduce the amount of energy consumed – the target is ten years between battery changes.

This system allowed them to do two things: determine how much water was being wasted due to saturated soil or because it was simply percolating beyond the reach of the roots, and control the temperature of the trees and vines by spraying water to cool them down or prevent freezing.

The full results won’t be ready until after the current growing season, but a comparison of preliminary data with adjacent control blocks indicates that the level of overwatering had been in 30% to 40% range. Heat-related losses during harvesting dropped from $2 million two years ago to zero this year. It appears that granular temperature control mitigated a risk factor that averages about 20% of value per year.

Smart city infrastructure, and not ag tech, is Fybr’s main line of business. The company says it has smart parking systems deployed in a handful of U.S. cities (and one in India), including San Francisco, and is expanding its range of urban applications to include water/waste water system and environmental monitoring.

SigFox plans California ag tech IoT network build out

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Small bursts of data at infrequent intervals are sufficient for many Internet of Things (IoT) applications. That’s as true in the agricultural technology sector as it is for urban uses, such as meter reading or environmental monitoring. AgTech, though, brings its own challenges and advantages to the party. On the one hand, there are fewer obstructions to block or attenuate wireless signals and spectrum tends to be less crowded. On the other, electrical power is often scarce and the realities of farming mean that anything you put in the ground often has to be temporary – fields are constantly being plowed up and replanted.

SigFox, a France-based company, is starting to expand its North American low power, wide area IoT network into rural areas. As with LoRa Alliance, which has a similar business model and technology, Sigfox is using unlicensed frequencies in the 900 MHz industrial (ISM) band to deliver very small data payloads – 12 bytes – to and from low power devices that can run off of batteries, in some cases for years. It claims to be operating in 24 countries – four of those with nationwide coverage – and supporting seven million devices.

Ramzi Alharayeri, SigFox’s San Francisco-based sales and business development director, talked about network build out plans and some of the agricultural applications they’re supporting at the Salinas AgTech meet up earlier this month. Irrigation control, soil monitoring and livestock tracking are among the services that partner companies offer – SigFox is a network operator, not a direct IoT service provider or equipment manufacturer itself.

So far, SigFox has a limited footprint in California. It’s built a network in San Francisco and surrounding areas, and has done some pilot projects in the north bay area. It hasn’t done a full scale rural deployment in the U.S. yet, but it’s looking at options for doing so.

Salinas Valley preps for IoT development wave

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Middle mile infrastructure is improving in the Salinas valley, with a quantum shift due early next year. That’s expected to help improve poor last mile broadband access, at least when compared to what the average California can expect to get. In a nutshell, that was the message I delivered to the Salinas AgTech meet up last week. You can download the presentation here.

The evening’s program was about broadband resources that could be available to support the development and deployment of Internet of things (IoT) applications, services and products in the region. The Salinas Valley is one of the world’s highest producing agricultural areas, and is just an hour’s drive south of Silicon Valley. Well, okay, it’s an hour when the traffic cooperates, which is not always a good bet. But even so, it’s close enough to make it the logical go-to development bed for agriculture-focused technology.

IoT will play a big role in the future of agriculture in California. All the talk about broadband gaps notwithstanding, water is the one absolutely critical – and desperately scarce – resource here. IoT can help manage it intelligently, both directly via increasingly granular and situationally aware irrigation control, and indirectly by reducing wasted or ill-timed production. And that’s just one aspect of IoT’s agricultural potential.

By the end of March, an open access fiber route – built by Sunesys with a grant from the California Public Utilities Commission – will connect the lower half of the valley to dark fiber that stretches back to heart of Silicon Valley. Besides improving retail broadband services for consumers and small businesses, it will also support the growth of high capacity, industrial class connections which can serve major agribusiness operations as well as the kind of low power, low bit rate wireless networks that will make widespread deployment of IoT technology feasible in the fields.

Ag tech data torrent driving investment in analytics

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Persistent feedback loop.

The collision of the Internet of Things (IoT) with the world of big data in the Monterey Bay region’s agricultural sector is revealing new problems. And local companies are getting the first shot at finding solutions. Opportunities created at the bleeding edge of ag tech deployment were highlighted at the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s economic summit in Monterey last week.

Mark Bartolomeo, an IoT vice president at Verizon, talked about how wireless connectivity enables real time data collection from the vineyards at Hahn Family Wines – water usage, soil moisture, chemical application, temperature, humidity, wind – but that’s only the beginning of the problem.

“We’re just collecting more and more data, and we’re not exactly sure what we can do with that”, he said. “So the big investments that we see being made today in the industry today are around data analytics”.

The goals, though, are clear. “What really we hope the data will give us is just the ability to fine tune and improve quality”, said Andy Mitchell, Hahn’s director of viticulture. “The wine industry is very competitive”.

Driscoll’s, a Watsonville-based berry producer, is focused on customer satisfaction. That means tracking strawberries from the farmworkers who pick and pack them, all the way to the people who eat them. Via unique bar codes on every package, the company is getting about half a million item-specific responses a year from consumers.

“We want to link the entire supply chain, and be able to trace all the way back to the farmworker”, said Soren Bjorn, executive vice president for Driscoll. “When we get rewarded for selling our berries in the marketplace, we reward our growers for producing those berries, and what we want to do is make sure we can share some of that with the one person who touched those berries, harvested the berries, so that the farmworker who does a better job of selecting the really good berry and nicely puts it into the clamshell just the way you want it, they share rewards as well”.

Five teams compete for cash and honors at Watsonville agtech hackathon

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It’s more complicated than you realise.

An application that farmers can use to manage the hundreds of tasks they have to work through every day was the winner at the third Apps for Ag hackathon, held in Watsonville on Sunday. The two-person Central Coast Coordinate team took top honors with a web application that uses calendar and map technology to schedule individual jobs for specific locations in the fields.

A total of fifteen competitors representing five teams took part in the competition, hosted by Cabrillo College at the Solari Green Technology Center in downtown Watsonville. They had a day, a night and another day to come up with solutions to common challenges faced by growers in the central coast region.

Second place went to Turbo Compliance. It’s a website where growers can enter raw information over the course of the year about when and where they apply, say, fertiliser, and then quickly output the annual paperwork they need to file.

Agripedia came third, and was singled out by the judges as the most interesting technology. The team linked Wikipedia’s open source wiki software to Twilio’s SMS service and created a platform that allows developing world farmers to use text messaging – which is nearly ubiquitous – to look up and retrieve agricultural information. Their solution included a technique for squeezing useful crop advice – or any similar data – into a 160-character limit.

The two runners-up were Food Traceability, a functional way of tracking food products from the field to final consumers, and AgriGator, an ambitious but ultimately incomplete attempt to corral a wide range of farming data and both mine it and transform it into regulatory compliance paperwork.

This was the first Apps for Ag hackathon to be held in Watsonville. The two previous events were in Coalinga and Davis. The first place team took home $5,000, second and third got $3,000 and $1,000 respectively.

Salinas targets Ag Tech Corridor, downtown with broadband RFP

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The City of Salinas has officially released a request for proposal, looking for telecommunications companies that are interested in using its municipal conduit system and other local assets to build out a high speed broadband system in key commercial and industrial areas…

The City of Salinas owns a total of 16,000 feet of telecommunications conduit that is available for use (see above referenced study) by respondents. Approximately 5,400 feet is in the core downtown business district, 1,600 feet in or near the planned Agricultural Technology Corridor and another 9,000 feet in an unincorporated area southwest of the city. Over the next ten years, the City plans to build an additional 108,000 feet of conduit, with construction in key areas – downtown, the Agricultural Technology Corridor, Alisal Marketplace and new developments in north Salinas – planned to be completed in two to five years. In addition, the City has an ongoing policy of installing telecommunications conduit in excavations in the public right of way and in other public works projects.

The information requested in the RFP is relatively top level – the objective is to get sufficient information about technical and business plans without putting too much of a burden on respondents.

The project is the result of a broadband study and plan I developed for Salinas last year. The Salinas City Council adopted it on 15 December 2015. It leverages several long haul fiber optic lines that run through the city already, and one that’s under construction by Sunesys LLC. Funded by a California Advanced Services Fund grant and available on a open access basis for a fixed price of $8.50 per mile per month, the Sunesys line will connect Salinas to Silicon Valley via Santa Cruz, as well as linking to major fiber access point locally and in Soledad, and providing in-town connections.

Written questions are due on 10 February 2016, there will be a pre-proposal meeting on 9 March 2016 and responses are due on 21 March 2016.

Request for proposal, Salinas Broadband Project, 25 January 2016
City of Salinas Preliminary Broadband Plan, 1 September 2015
Salinas City Council staff report, commercial broadband infrastructure, 15 December 2015
Salinas Broadband Project KML files

Salinas pursues fast broadband to build ag tech corridor

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With big and small agricultural companies expanding in downtown Salinas and the southeast area of the city earmarked as an Ag Tech Corridor, the need for better broadband infrastructure is becoming critical. Yesterday, the Salinas City Council voted to ask for proposals from potential private sector partners who are interested in using city assets to build out high capacity networks.

Tellus Venture Associates recently completed a study for the City of Salinas that evaluated existing infrastructure and examined options for improving it. Key findings of the study – which formed the basis for the council’s decision – include…

  • Generally broadband infrastructure in the City of Salinas is average, as compared to California as a whole, and above average compared to other communities in Monterey County. AT&T and Comcast offer broadband service to nearly all homes and businesses in Salinas, on generally the same terms and at the same service level as elsewhere in California. Broadband providers that specialize in serving business customers are also present in Salinas, although not on a widespread basis.
  • Despite this focus, data provided by AT&T and Comcast to the California Public Utilities Commission indicates that the underlying broadband infrastructure in commercial and industrial areas of Salinas, and in the southeast area in particular, is substandard.
  • Salinas is served by several fiber optic routes that provide connections to major Internet exchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area and southern California, and, in some cases, are capable of providing local service directly to locations within the city.
  • The City of Salinas owns approximately 16,000 feet of conduit that is available to support construction of additional fiber optic networks, and has plans to build 108,000 feet of additional conduit in the next few years.

The next step is for the City of Salinas to issue a request for proposals from interested and qualified companies for using the existing and planned fiber lines traversing the city and city-owned conduit and other resources to build out broadband infrastructure in the downtown and Ag Tech Corridor areas. The council approved a draft RFP, and the final version should be released soon. More on that later.

City of Salinas preliminary broadband plan
Draft request for proposal
Staff report on Salinas commercial broadband infrastructure, 15 December 2015