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Putting “smart” beans to work in the bin

New technology has game-changing potential for grain storage monitoring

A new technology coming out of Cambridge, England could provide an easy, flexible and cost-effective way for farmers to monitor stored grain, livestock barns, greenhouses or chemical storage sheds.

The BeanIoT system deploys thumb-sized “smart” sensors to monitor whatever the user requires. In a grain storage shed or bin that might be temperature, humidity, or insect movements. The sensors provide detailed, layered data that give a complete picture of what’s going on at multiple locations and at any point in time.

“These units, which could be either thrust or deposited into the grain, are at a level that you can have a high density of information,” says Andrew Holland, founder and CEO of RF Module and Optical Design Limited (RFMOD), developer of the BeanIoT technology. “It’s often reported that two probe points in a grain stack say there’s no problem but there is actually a problem in between those probe points that wasn’t picked up. Density of deployment is key. Our system provides lots of physical positions across the grain stack, so the farmer is not going to miss any untoward activity like hot spots, mould growth, insect infestation, and so forth.”

The system comes with “beans” that are deployed into the product or system the user wants to monitor, as well as an integrated “Internet of things” platform, app and data visualisation service.

BeanIoT is an out-of-the-box system that the user can begin to use immediately with minimal set up and without a significant up-front investment. RFMOD is currently testing BeanIoT on U.K. farms using flat grain storage facilities, although it is also suitable for use in grain bins.

“There is genuine interest from small to mid-size farmers to have a working system,” says Holland. “They still need to periodically walk the grain stack, but our system means that they don’t need to laboriously insert probes and manually record the data. It is easy to set up, and once they turn the system on the beans being to pump data to the BeanIoT hub and then across the ether to any laptop, computer or smartphone. That data set is giving data points to a known time base, which is also flexible. As grain goes into the bin or flat store, they are able to increase the number of samples of temperature or humidity because the farmer wants to see that temperature come down to a good level. Once it’s at a certain level, they can reduce the sample frequency from multiple times an hour, or once an hour, to once or twice a day.”

The rechargeable beans have a battery life of around 14 months and can be re-used over and over again.

The tiny beans produce “big data” which the user owns and controls. Users can decide where to measure data, what data to record, and how to use and share the data. The idea is to help users make better-informed management decisions. “We’re putting all the information anybody would ever need to know up in front of them,” says Holland. “It’s those high level decisions that we’re trying to assist with.”

Instead of displaying endless graphs and spreadsheets full of numbers, the interface shows basic data as a thermal heat map, and additional data, such as humidity, can be overlaid. “It provides a compound image of what’s going on and the farmer can tell which sensor is pinpointing the actual point where there is an issue in the grain,” says Holland.

Try this at home

Many western Canadian farmers have issues with rural cellular or internet coverage, but BeanIoT system uses a local hub to receive data. “As long as the data gets back to a local hub, the hub itself can make the decision about what key data to send to the farmer, even if it’s just the decision-worthy data, so for example if just an alarm gets sent,” says Holland.

“The flexibility in the system is such that you can start by reporting all the data all the time to see all your graphs and everything else, but there may be a limited use to that over a period of time. What the farm or the store manager really needs to know is, “Is everything OK today?’ so the operator just needs to receive a tweet, alert or email with a name and position of the problem area and an actionable role inside.”

The system can also spot trends and is fully customizable to any user’s changing needs. “Over time, we know our customers will want new to add features but the system is so flexible that it can be easily updated over the air,” says Holland. “It’s two-way communication, so the farmer can tell the system to increase the time base or decrease it, ask for trend data, or only come on if it sees a step-change between certain parameters.”

In theory, the system could eventually hook into the drying or aeration system itself to automatically turn fans and vents on and off as needed. That stage of automation is still ahead.

BeanIoT is a generic system that has many potential applications for multiple industries where tracking or monitoring is required. It also has the potential to provide full traceability for agricultural and other products through the value chain.

The system is about a year away from commercialization, and although the company is focused on the U.K. agricultural market right now, it’s open to discussions with other countries and industries about the potential of BeanIoT for other applications.


The Internet of things

The ‘Internet-of-Things’ is an interconnected, global network of physical and virtual devices. It can include all kind of electronics such as sensors, smartphones and computers, as well as software, buildings, satellite or cellular systems or even refrigerators.

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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