Grapes under electronic surveillance
Though it may sound somewhat simplistic, in a nutshell the creed of the CSEM, the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology, is this: “Very small and very useful”. Certainly, this is how the WiseFIELD project could be described. “For some time now, we have been developing microcircuits that are not only as small as possible but also use as little power as possible,” explains Philippe Dallemagne, project manager of Wireless Embedded Systems. “In parallel with these developments, we are continuously seeking applications. This is how the idea cropped up of supplying wine-growing and agricultural professionals with a system that could give them a helping hand with their work.”
Now it is not an uncommon sight to spot CSEM engineers pacing the vineyards above Neuchâtel. They are not there to pick grapes but to harvest the data that has been collected by a network of sensors they had previously installed. These field studies are still preliminary and were carried out in conjunction with a wine grower and specialists from the Changins-Wädenswil School of Engineering. This is the first experience of its kind. If it turns out to be a success, it could lead to a major change in certain areas of agriculture – from an environmental point of view, that is to say. Powering microwatts
The system developed by CSEM consists of a series of devices that are spread out over a given crop, or as is currently the case, in a vineyard. There, they act as miniature control stations that can measure various parameters at adjustable intervals. “We have developed a platform which is not only small but also less greedy with regards to energy,” explains Philippe Dallemagne. “We are talking in microwatts here. What is more, these control stations are driven by miniature solar power supply systems. As a result, they can be autonomous over a very long period, ideally over a number of years.”
Moreover, it is possible to add a number of sensors to such platform, much like those that you can easily find on the market, which makes them pretty straightforward to adapt to the needs of each farmer. All sorts of sensors exist – for measuring temperature, sunshine, leaf humidity, air humidity, the concentration of fertiliser or pesticides – you name it. All you have to do is chose what you need and organise this minute electronic world on the platform. But keep one thing in mind: the more sensors there are, the more power the platform will use.
“The advantage of such systems,” continues the CSEM specialist, “is that they can be placed on any plot of land you wish to consider. For example, the degree of evaporation varies according to the topography and the nature of a plot. On the basis of data supplied by the sensors, a farmer is able to see which part of the land has to be watered and which part does not, thus saving water. The whole point of such a system is to protect the environment by using in an optimum way any external contribution that a given crop may need.”
That said, there is more to these platforms than just miniature technology designed to consume the least power. A great part of such an innovation is its wireless communication system. Every platform acts as an independent unity which collects its own data before transmitting it to the others, so that the information can be passed on efficiently to the central “sink”, that is to say the user’s computer. “The whole point of this self-organised network – which is, in effect, a sort of wifi network whose protocol was developed by us – is that the power needed for wireless communication between the platforms is very small, in keeping with our logic of the lowest consumption for the system as a whole,” explains Dallemagne.
Currently a field study, the project in the Neuchâtel vineyard will soon be equipped with about fifty sensors. The experiment is to be carried out over a whole season. As such, the engineers will only be able to draw their first conclusions in the coming autumn.
En français dans le texte
Vignes sous surveillance électronique
Depuis longtemps, le CSEM développe des microcircuits aussi petits que possibles et qui consomment le moins possible. Le projet WISEField est destiné à procurer aux professionnels de la branche viticole et agricole de tels systèmes afin d’ optimiser tous les apports extérieurs qu’exige telle ou telle culture. Menée en concertation avec un vigneron et les spécialistes de l’école d’ingénieurs de Changins-Wädenswil, le CSEM va déployer en 2011 une série de boitiers répartis dans la vigne et communiquant en utilisant très peu d’énergie.