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Managing Water: IIoT App Supports Sustainable Farming

SCADAfarm—a cloud-based system built by WaterForce and Schneider Electric on Microsoft Azure—helps farmers monitor and control their irrigation and wastewater, saving resources, time and money.

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The Microsoft Inspire partner conference, which has been going on this week in Washington, D.C., is geared toward sharing stories of digital transformation. And there is certainly some inspiration to be gained from some of these partnerships—a cloud-based mobile application, for example, that helps a sheep and cattle farmer manage and monitor his water usage, and cut energy costs in half.

Agriculture accounts for almost 70 percent of the world’s water consumption. With a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, global food demand will increasingly strain the farming industry, making smart irrigation more important than ever. It is predicted that water demand will increase by 55 percent to support the food requirements of that 2050 population.

This week, Schneider Electric shared the work it’s done with WaterForce, a New Zealand-based provider of irrigation and water management systems, to develop SCADAfarm, a cloud-based Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform built on Microsoft Azure. Integrating several components of Schneider Electric’s software and hardware portfolio—including EcoStruxure, an open, interoperable, IoT-enabled system architecture—SCADAfarm gives agriculture customers the ability to monitor and control irrigation pumps from connected devices.

SCADAfarm helps farmers monitor and control irrigation systems spread over a wide geographical area and multiple properties. Through smartphones, tablets or PCs, farmers can control and operate their pivots (the main apparatus used for irrigation) from anywhere. They have complete access to irrigation and wastewater systems—able to turn water on and off, set pivot speed and direction, check water pressure and soil moisture levels, change watering depth and more.

Schneider Electric’s ClearSCADA telemetry and remote SCADA software provides real-time control and monitoring functionality, optimized for geographically dispersed infrastructure. By providing location-based alarming, overlaid with real-time weather data and GPS mapping, ClearSCADA can provide insight into asset status, environmental factors and system performance.

“Rather than being tied to the farm, we can operate our pivots from anywhere. I’ve pre-loaded into SCADAfarm all the safe wind positions on our farm. That way if we’re out for tea and the wind picks up, I can park them in slot and not have to worry,” says Craig Blackburn, director/farm manager of Blackhills Farm. “I probably check SCADAfarm 15 times a day, just making sure all the pivots are going, and adjusting things depending on how the Rakaia River is flowing and what our pond level is.”

Blackhills Farm

Blackhills Farm is a 990-acre complex operation, with 2,100 cattle, 800 sheep, six enormous center-pivot irrigators, and about 170 acres of kale, fodder beet and other crops to feed the animals. With SCADAfarm, Blackburn can remotely monitor and operate irrigators and pumps; customize sprinklers for individual crops, soil types and moisture levels; and incorporate real-time data from a weather station on the farm, which helps him quickly adjust irrigation for rain, wind, heat and other conditions. One farm recorded a 50 percent reduction in energy costs in the first season by shifting irrigation behavior and taking advantage of off-peak energy rates.

“Every day I adjust my pivots and pumps for a variety of reasons—shifts in the wind, rain levels, crop requirements or local regulations,” Blackburn says. “Now I can monitor and control my irrigation system easily from my mobile phone, saving me hours of time not spent driving around the farm. With information at my fingertips, my farm is more productive, water and energy costs are lower and crop yields higher. I’d struggle now to live without it.”

With high-fidelity real-time data collected, stored and visualized in the cloud, SCADAfarm also provides farmers with a complete historical picture of performance over time. The consolidation of data from multiple, disparate sensors, devices and systems—including Schneider Electric’s ClearSCADA, SCADAPack RTUs, Trio Q Data Radio and Altivar variable-speed drives—provides complete visibility into irrigation performance.

Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure architecture enables scalable design and operation of

connected systems, helping operations react more dynamically to changing conditions. “The beauty of the solution lies in its simplicity and scalability,” says Rob McGreevy, vice president of information, operations and asset management for Schneider Electric. “In today’s digital economy with fast-evolving requirements, improving the visibility of business variables with simple but powerful technology solutions is allowing our customers to achieve quantifiable business improvements for only an incremental investment.”

Because the system can work with a farm’s existing equipment such as irrigation and pump controllers, no significant capital investment is required to get started, McGreevy explains. “EcoStruxure simplifies the integration between the connected products, edge control, and apps and analytics to provide an innovative solution that responds to the specific needs of these farmers,” he says.

Though IIoT technologies provide opportunities for farms—as they do for industrial plants—most farms are not built to handle large software installations, according to Ron McFetridge, director of WaterForce. “Using a lightweight cloud solution with mobile capabilities has been key to expanding IoT capabilities to these farms,” he says. “Our partnership with Schneider Electric has made our vision for SCADAfarm a reality.”

Regulatory compliance

New and rigorous regulatory requirements being implemented across the food chain include strict compliance codes that farmers in New Zealand must adhere to in order to retain their “consent to farm.” As part of this, they must monitor and report on everything from stock levels and fertilizer application through to water application, uptake and runoff.

“The biggest challenges we’re facing is the rising costs of water compliance,” Blackburn says. “So we’re looking towards the technology to try and reduce the costs.”

In New Zealand, farmers are often limited to how much water they can draw from the river networks each day. SCADAfarm allows them to check river level, pond capacity, pump speed, weather forecast, etc., before making decisions to start or stop the irrigator pumps. System status is continually monitored and recorded, so water intake and use is always up to date.

For example, if the daily application rate is 5 mm of irrigated water, then farmers can demonstrate that the water is used by the plants and not running off into the environment—this proof is a key regulatory requirement for retaining their consent.

Working with Schneider Electric, WaterForce has been able to provide its farming customers increased visibility of irrigation system performance and status, more efficient and effective water use, subsequent energy savings and time saved driving out to inspect assets.

As the OEM, WaterForce can use the IIoT capabilities to offer value-add services such as remote monitoring, fault diagnosis and performance benchmarking.

“Groundbreaking technologies such as SCADAfarm have become increasingly popular with our clients,” WaterForce’s McFetridge says. “The addition of wireless field remote controls (SCADAfarm), especially those that leverage the IIoT and remote telemetry, have been welcomed as popular additions to farm management.”


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