- By Benson Hougland
- December 21, 2022
System integrator Farm Data Systems helps agricultural producer save time and produce better yield with automation and IoT technologies. This feature originally appeared in InTech Focus: Systems Integration 2022, the InTech Focus ebook for November 2022.
Azcal Management farms 8,700 acres in Kings County, Calif., in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Its diverse bounty includes pistachios, wine grapes, alfalfa, and such row crops as onions, garlic and tomatoes. Pioneers in precision agriculture technology, Azcal focuses on increasing production and efficiency, and improving crop quality.
In drought-prone California, farmers walk a fine line regarding water use. Costs, government regulations, and concern for future availability mean that they must be more diligent about providing just enough water for crops, not too much or too little.
One of the Azcal ranches has 12 deep-well pumps with variable frequency drives (VFDs) (Figure 1) feeding a single mainline (Figure 2) that serves a 4,000-acre ranch just south of Lemoore, Calif. Monitoring and controlling these pumps used to be a full-time job for farm managers Jake Sheely and Marty Rhoads. It took about seven hours throughout each day to drive around the ranch and make the needed micro-adjustments to pumping and irrigation systems.
Their monitoring was vital to ensure that system pressures and flows were within range and that pumps were operating efficiently. With four or five well pumps running simultaneously, Sheely and Rhoads had to be diligent to avoid both low- and high-pressure events. This often required them to switch wells based on farming needs. The wells must be kept in operation but not be overdrawn. A drop in the flow rate would mean the well was overdrawn, and if air was sucked into the pump, the well could require thousands of dollars to repair.
In addition, like many growers, they also suffered from power failures and incoming voltage spikes. It could be several hours before they realized a pump was no longer running or had burned up. The time involved in manual monitoring and control was just too much, so Azcal looked for a simple way to automate its water management and track pumping events for monthly water accounting.
Azcal interviewed several agricultural technology providers. They tried proprietary tools designed for pump control, but although these worked for one pump and 40 acres, none of them could integrate everything at scale. In addition, there was limited support for remote or sophisticated proportional-integral-derivative (PID) loop control.
Discouraged, Azcal was dubious when Farm Data Systems (FDS) in Madera, Calif., approached them with new technology. However, no one had been able to deliver what they needed thus far, and FDS owner and president John Williamson had worked on projects for them with a previous company, so they were willing to listen.
The solution What Azcal needed was a controller at each well pump that was fully integrated with existing VFDs and would allow them to remotely start and stop pumps as well as make micro-adjustments to either the speed or the pressure setpoints. Reliable monitoring of flowmeters and incoming voltage was also a must. FDS responded with an integrated, modular architecture (Figure 6) that can be easily adapted for each customer’s purposes.
The system integrator
“Not that many system integrators serve the agricultural market,” said Williamson. “They are focused on post-harvest—pack houses—not really in the field.”
As Williamson noted, agricultural customers are trying to solve fairly simple problems, but there are so many difficulties that it becomes complex. Assets are spread out over wide distances. You can’t run ethernet wiring; the system has to be wireless. Cost is a huge factor as well, as farms don’t usually have big budgets.
But the engineers at FDS have spent the last 20 years figuring out how to make technology in the field both relevant and cost-effective for growers. In the early years, they used their own technology for monitoring, but customers began asking for more features. So, FDS standardized on Opto 22 hardware and Ignition software from Inductive Automation, bringing agriculture into the internet of things (IoT). “Five years from now, I don’t know how anyone will be able to farm efficiently without this IoT technology,” said Williamson.
Using the selected hardware and software, FDS has developed an end-to-end field monitoring and automation solution for crop irrigation management. Opto 22 groov EPIC controllers and groov RIO modules connect to sensors and equipment in the field to gather data and automate control (Figure 4).
FDS’s Water Informatics platform, an Ignition project hosted on FDS’s private cloud, provides the control and data that farmers need in a way that they can understand and easily use. Each customer has a private view based on its login that shows just the assets and information for that ranch.
By avoiding expensive custom hardware that can be time-consuming to build and maintain, FDS can keep prices affordable while limiting downtime if something has to be replaced or upgraded. With off-the-shelf controllers, sensors that are already widely used in many other industries, and their own simple-to-use software, FDS’s systems are affordable for farmers.
Not only has the company significantly improved irrigation management at more than 500 farms covering more than 50 crops (Figure 3), but it also farms its own 200-acre technology lab to test system improvements.
Farm Data Systems began using Opto 22 controllers and input/output (I/O) several years ago. They had used another company’s products for pump control, but the systems were too expensive for most farms. When they discovered that these new IoT products could do the same things more efficiently, Williamson said, “Opto opened the door into Ag for us.”
Initially, they chose the Ethernet-based, rackmounted SNAP PAC R-series controllers and I/O for field installations. However, when Opto 22 released groov EPIC and groov RIO, they saw an opportunity to reduce costs further.
“There are 60,000 irrigation pumps in California, and 60-70% have only four to six I/Os,” said Williamson. “It doesn’t make sense to put a full controller in there.” Instead, FDS uses a groov RIO universal I/O module, a small unit that offers a broad range of software-configurable signal types, plus built-in security and IoT communications.
For system control, FDS uses the groov EPIC edge programmable industrial controller. Designed for industrial automation and IoT, the controller offers security features, including a configurable device firewall, user accounts and authentication, data encryption, security certificate management, virtual private network (VPN) client, and dual independent ethernet ports.
Both groov EPIC and groov RIO include Node-RED and MQTT communications, which FDS is increasingly using to streamline data capture. A groov RIO at a remote location, for example, can send data via MQTT directly to an MQTT broker on the Ignition server.
A key part of Farm Data Systems’ installations is its project software, Water Informatics (Figure 5). With a UDT library of all the features provided—pumps, flowmeters, moisture probes, every physical device—new assets can be copied and pasted to build out a new project in minutes. Once added, every feature can be expanded to other customers.
Because the architecture is hosted, FDS just needs to turn on customers’ access to their individual pages. Adding a new client is “super-fast,” noted Williamson. “The software part can be completed in a few days. Installing hardware is the bulk of the work.”
Using industry-standard controller hardware and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, FDS offers nearly 30 different modules hosted on a secure web server, from soil moisture monitoring to full irrigation automation. They constantly add new modules based on customers’ needs.
For Azcal, FDS began by installing Opto 22 SNAP PAC I/O units at five well pumps. As soon as groov RIO was available, they installed groov RIO modules at an additional seven well pumps. The well pump I/O reports data on voltage transducers, virtual speed potentiometers, remote setpoints, current switches, VFDs and flowmeters at each location and sends that data over Wi-Fi via an ethernet switch and a Ubiquiti bridge to the main tower location.
At the tower location a groov EPIC acts as the central controller, running an Opto 22 PAC Control strategy. From a dedicated network at the tower site, data is shared over a virtual private network (VPN) from the EPIC, through the internet.
The customer data lives in the SCADA software on the Microsoft Azure cloud server. The software gives Azcal the ability to access its system via mobile devices. From their phones or other devices with a web browser, Azcal can:
- Remotely start and stop pumps
- Control VFD frequency on four pumps using a virtual speed pot
- Control the pressure setpoint virtually on the remaining eight VFDs
- Continuously monitor pump pressure and flow rate
- Track VFD frequency, voltage, current, and power
- Monitor incoming line voltage and well health
- Receive alerts on critical operational issues and general pump activity
- Receive reports on pump activity and water usage
The manual monitoring and adjustments that used to take Azcal six or seven hours per day now take just a few minutes a day. “We are thrilled with the FDS solution. I am on top of pump management first thing in the morning before the day gets going. It just works!,” said Sheely.
From day one, Sheely and Rhoads have been able to use the FDS client app for Water Informatics on their phones to power up any of their pumps within seconds. Additionally, they can see the pressures and flows continuously changing and make adjustments without having to jump into their truck to visit any of the sites directly. They also have visibility into their incoming voltage for the first time and receive text alerts any time the system loses power.
As Williamson noted, every part of the platform can be trusted to be secure and reliable.
“The combination of Opto and Ignition is very flexible,” Williamson said. “I can just keep adding features all day. We’ve already proposed to come back to add cascading PID control, so they don’t have to do the remote control themselves. It will do it for them.”
Each addition builds Farm Data Systems’ ability to help existing and new customers. Williamson said, “Every time we do something for them, we just add more features for all our customers.”
Azcal has exactly the solution they needed at an affordable price. The latest industrial control technologies adapt well to an agricultural setting and start delivering return on investment immediately. As a result, Azcal is already rolling out the same technology across their other ranches, with additional features, including valve control and irrigation scheduling.
This feature originally appeared in InTech Focus: Systems Integration 2022, the InTech Focus ebook for November 2022.
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