Automation in Agricultural Irrigation



Managing and maximizing crop yield can be complex. Experienced agricultural irrigation professionals have mastered the art and science of crop yield, and deeply understand the relationships among the variables that contribute to crop health. Every day is a moving target and the schedule is constantly adjusted, tuned and executed to ensure optimal crop health.

It is critical that users have a pulse on what is happening to the soil, the weather, and the irrigation equipment at all times so they are ready to adjust and redeploy at a moment’s notice. Now imagine how the user might leverage modern technology to take control over some of those variables to help get the job done with more efficiency.

System Overview

While each irrigation system setup is different, there are some common components such as the pump, controller, the type of irrigators and the invisible component: the schedule.

The schedule ties the system together. It accounts for the flow rate of the pump, the size and variability of the field, the capacity of the irrigators, and it combines that data with things like weather forecast data, soil moisture, and crop performance history to determine how and when the field needs to be watered. At some farms, this data is stored in the irrigator’s mind, refined over the years through experience. In others, this data is measured and tracked manually, stored in electronic workbooks and printed out to deploy to the field. Every farm is structured differently, and the irrigation tasks may be executed by one manager or there might be an individual or team responsible for each task.

Value in Automation

When looking at the activity that makes up a typical day of an irrigation team, users should be asking, “How can we free up some of the time it takes doing the manually intensive work, so that we have more time to plant additional crops and maximize the overall yield?” Leveraging modern technology to automate some of these tasks is one way to maximize output.

Labor Savings

Depending on the size of the farm, a big chunk of labor hours is time spent traveling to and from crop fields for inspection or daily maintenance. This can be reduced by either reducing the need to travel to those fields by enabling remote management or by reducing the amount of time spent in the field checking the equipment and making changes to the settings.

Process Efficiency

By reducing the labor hours required to perform daily monitoring and adjustments to the equipment, the process becomes more efficient. In addition to labor savings, key contributors to process waste like waiting, transportation and unused talent can be eliminated. Automating the process by enabling remote monitoring and control of the pump allows the irrigation team to focus time on critical work like equipment maintenance and upgrades, ultimately yielding a more efficient process.

Maximized Uptime

In redirecting focus and attention to improving the irrigation process, including the equipment and process steps, waste is minimized, efficiency is improved and the system can operate at maximized uptime. Remote monitoring can provide advanced warning when system degradation is occurring, prompting precision maintenance and avoiding unscheduled downtime and reduced crop yield.

Peace of Mind

Even when the irrigation team is off duty, it is still aware of how critical the job is. At any moment, a pump could go down or a pipe could break, putting crop health at risk. There is a pervasive worry that accompanies the job. Enabling remote monitoring and control through mobile apps on smartphones gives the users peace of mind when they leave the field. They can pop in any time, from anywhere, and get confirmation that the system is operating as it should, meaning the crops are getting the water supply and nutrition they need to thrive.

New Construction vs. Retrofit

Whether designing a new irrigation system or retrofitting an old one, determining the best place to start when it comes to automating the process and incorporating modern internet of things (IoT) technology can be intimidating. As a best practice,  following these steps is recommended:

1. Map out the process. From beginning to end, what does the system look like? How is the schedule determined? What key variables should be considered?

2. Identify key goals/metrics. How is success measured today? How does the irrigation team know they have done the job successfully?

3. List out major detractors to getting the job done. Imagine all the things that could go wrong. What are some of the most common pain points that the user encounters in a typical workday?

4. Rank the effort versus impact. From that list of pain points, create a spreadsheet that assigns how severe the impact is of those detractors. Then assign a value for how hard it would be to implement a fix to that pain point. Once the team has quantified each opportunity, sort the list by most impactful and least amount of effort.

5. Start small. Start with one thing that makes the biggest impact and is easiest to implement.

6. Continuously improve. Learn from the past. Once there is one implementation complete, recommendations can be made on what to do differently or how to expand what has been implemented. The more experience in automating the system, the better users will get and the bigger the ideas will be.

7. Celebrate the wins. Set small goals for individuals and the team. Leveraging new technology can feel overwhelming. Find ways to communicate success (think back to those key defined goals) and share the wins with the team.

For remote monitoring of electric pumping systems, a controller that has communication capability is critical. This might be a variable frequency drive (VFD) that has cellular connectivity onboard. From there, the data from the pump and sensors is sent from the VFD through the cellular modem into the data cloud where it is analyzed and interpreted.

The mobile application on a smartphone is unique to the user’s hardware and retrieves the equipment data from the cloud and presents it in a clean user interface that can be accessed through the smart device’s screen. In this scenario, users do not need to be next to the equipment. If there is internet access on the smartphone, there will be access to the equipment data. This means even the irrigation team can take that much-anticipated vacation and still get the peace of mind that the irrigation equipment is running as planned.

As process efficiency and profitability continue to become key drivers for agricultural operations, there are concrete benefits to adopting solutions based on innovation and connectivity.

By applying remote monitoring and control of irrigation systems, users can not only enable efficiency improvements, labor savings and reduced water usage, but also gain greater visibility into irrigation processes. This actionable data can ultimately help users make smarter decisions while freeing up valuable time to maximize yield.