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Wireless in the Fields
Wireless in the Fields

Agriculture isn't where you'd necessarily expect to find the latest technology, but nowhere is wireless more appropriate than in open fields.

The search for ways to extend data collection more effectively into the field goes back at least as far as the electric utility meter - unless you count census takers and tax collectors, who no doubt go back as far as the written word. In any age, getting reliable and timely information back in usable form to those who need it has presented a challenge.

The Problem
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a DuPont company, is known primarily as the world's leading developer and international supplier of advanced plant genetics in agriculture. Pioneer employs 120 professional field-sales agronomists throughout North America to provide product support and information to seed customers. One of Pioneer's key business goals was to effectively gather data about current crops and potential pest outbreaks at the hundreds of farmers' fields its professional agronomists visit each day. Timely information can alert growers and allow early preparation and faster responses to problems that do appear.

To upgrade its reporting system, Pioneer joined with developer software maker Fieldworker Products Ltd., a Toronto-based company known for its mobile computing solutions, and with PointBase Inc., a Java data-management and synchronization specialist active in the embedded database and data mobility markets.

Working together, the three companies devised a digital system to gather, synchronize, and report agricultural problems and crop-production trends in near-real time. It has the potential to change the face of agriculture globally.

Information Is the Key
Nowhere does data collection in the field present more challenges than in the world's "other oldest profession," agriculture. Distances are great, access can be spotty, farmers have trouble finding time to file reports, and nature is unpredictable and unforgiving. Knowledge of what crops are being raised; where and in what likely yields; and what pests and diseases threaten production and where, can improve a farmer's odds of meeting market needs and making a profit.

Events at the level of the "simple farmer" have long fascinated those who watch agriculture and, as the world gets more crowded, the stakes are rising. Lack of information carries more than economic consequences for the farmer since it can have life-or- death implications for entire populations.

Improving the level and timeliness of information available to farmers was a natural goal for Pioneer. The company's products range beyond agriculture into consumer food and nutrition, health care, apparel, home and construction, and electronics and transportation, but its primary customer base has always been farmers. With products extending into advanced plant genetics, crop-protection systems, and related crop products, the company has a high-level view of both local farming and the larger tides of international agricultural economics. In effect, Pioneer looks through both ends of the economic telescope.

The Reporting Hurdle
Pioneer grows nearly one-million acres of seed-production crops, in fields vulnerable to the same pests that affect farmers' fields, so Pioneer shares many of the problems faced by farmers. The sooner the company sees information on crops and pests, the better its forecasters can meet the needs of farmers, including its own research and production operations.

Prior to 2001, Pioneer's agronomists collected written notes on various paper forms in a 15-30 day process that simply did not meet their needs. The paper forms themselves presented an obstacle to timely reporting. Some agronomists did share their observations by e-mail, but there was no central, coordinated database for everyone to access. To complicate matters further, some agronomists were very verbose while others wrote tersely, and equivalent data ended in different places on the forms. Pioneer needed to standardize its incoming data and eliminate the reporting delays.

Approaching a Solution
An internal team led by Tom Hall, the technical applications manager, was tasked to find a solution. The team quickly decided Pioneer needed to own and manage the software itself, rather than bringing in outside consults to manage Pioneer's system. With inhouse ownership, those developing the software would know Pioneer's own business data needs best, and total cost of ownership would drop because outsiders would not be needed to update the application to meet changing conditions.

With no competing bids to manage, the project became somewhat simpler. The challenge now was to find the best tools to create a field data acquisition, storage, and transmittal system linking infield agronomists to central databases. Pioneer could then perform analyses, share the results, and produce timely forecasts as needed.

The Hardware
The team decided agronomists in the field needed handheld devices, not laptops, because of the challenging conditions. Pocketsized units would be best, provided they could run a data-gathering program that was likely to evolve as growing conditions changed or new pests threatened crops. Crop conditions change from day to day, so extensive debugging and downtime for software changes would create more problems than it solved. The devices needed a full-service operating system with well-understood programming principles, supported by enough memory and other computing resources to enable rapid development and error-free propagation of changes.

Pioneer settled on PocketPC handhelds from Compaq/HP and Dell as both cost-efficient and technically up to the task. These devices had a reasonable battery life, screens that were legible in bright sunlight, and sufficient memory and processor speed to run FieldWorker software, using an embedded service call form. The Pioneer team then selected Navman GPS (Global Positioning System) units to tie each data point to a geographically precise location. GPS information, newly available, would allow accurate conclusions on rate of spread of crop pests and diseases as well as faster, more accurate mapping of crop levels and other trends. The iPaq units use Navman sleeve attachments while Axims use CF slot attachments (see Figure 1).

The Software
For electronic forms and data-gathering software, Pioneer selected FieldWorker, known for its rapid application development (RAD) utilities and tool kits used by integrators, software developers, corporations, and governments. FieldWorker had already developed more than 100 applications in 30 or more vertical markets, and its RAD program offered an alternative to custom-writing mobile computing applications from scratch. It promised to let Pioneer keep its application in-house without bloated development costs.

Hall's team, working with FieldWorker product manager Frank Luengo, came up to speed quickly on FieldWorker's RAD libraries, which provided ready-made data access and update methods as well as the means to deploy software onto handheld devices.

The main challenge now would be developing a custom database to store new data and transfer it nightly to laptops for synching with the distant central database. The software must not overtax the limited memory and calculating resources of handhelds despite the high data density and complex synching operation.

Fieldworker's Luengo recommended that Hall look at PointBase Micro, an off-the-shelf database designed for mobile devices. Published by California-based PointBase, Inc., PointBase Micro 4.5 came preoptimized for systems with limited resources. Being a capable SQL database, PointBase Micro would require no complex data transformations for interactions between handhelds, laptops, and Pioneer's main central database.

Hall and Luengo called PointBase, which put them in touch with senior technical support engineer Iqbal Yusuff, who confirmed that PointBase Micro would be a good fit for the project. The 100% Java relational database system is highly portable, and its ultra-small footprint in a JAR file under-90KB would respect the resource-constrained handheld environment, while its Query Language: Subset of SQL 92 had transactional support for extending enterprise-standard applications to handheld devices.

Pioneer needed to collect and synchronize data from laptops to the central database. Yusuff recommended PointBase UniSync, whose API-based framework enables bidirectional data synchronization with enterprise-level data sources such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and PointBase Embedded Server. UniSync synchronization topologies and modes include both TCP/IP and HTTP transport protocols. Together, PointBase Micro database with UniSync would meet Pioneer's needs at a fraction of the projected cost for Hall's team to develop the equivalent system from scratch.

Implementing the New System
To keep the pilot small, in 2002 the team fieldtested the new system with 20 agronomists. This initial implementation phase went smoothly to a degree Hall's team found surprising, and in the 2003 growing season, Pioneer expanded the program by adding 70 more units, with plans to expand to all 120 of the company's in-field agronomists in 2004.

There were minor problems to be sure, but they were of a sort not uncommon to any datagathering project. Ultimately, with FieldWorker's RAD and the ready-to-roll PointBase mobile database, Pioneer had set its expectations accurately. Most of the pilot's problems were related to logistics - distributing the new equipment and training the field agronomists to use it.

On balance, the team considers the project a technical triumph.

The procedure is actually not at all complex from a user's point of view. Each agronomist synchronizes new field data into the central database once each evening, typically through a cradle via a laptop computer to the distant central office.

It's all automatic. In a typical session, the agronomist logs on nightly to a company-wide network by phone line or VPN to access e-mail and other routine functions. The data is automatically transferred during the call to a server and, while the agronomist goes about his business, the data is synced into the central database and published on a user-friendly, map-based Web site. Users, including the logged-on agronomist, can query the database for current information, including date and locations of pests or crop types.

The Bottom Line
In 2002, the first year of widespread testing, Pioneer collected digital input during nearly 1,000 field service calls across North America by 20 agronomists. In 2003 the pilot was expanded to more than 70 additional agronomists and, if the second year proves as successful as the first, in 2004 Pioneer will expand the program to all of its more than 120 remote field agronomists.

Until a few years ago, such a project would have taken years, cost millions of dollars, been difficult to support, and might never have actually met expectations. FieldWorker's RAD and the PointBase Micro database allowed Pioneer to create an in-house solution on a framework that accommodates updates as farming needs change. It protects Pioneer from pitfalls of proprietary solutions, such as paying outsiders to maintain and update applications or being left behind as hardware, O/S, and connectivity improve.

The GPS-pinpointed data already helps Pioneer plot crops and forecast diseases being spread by the trade winds. It has led to increased preventive treatments by farmers in at-risk areas, which represents increased sales for Pioneer and an improved capability for the farmers to ward off diseases or deal with them early. It is reducing crop damage and the resulting harmful human and economic consequences.

The soundness of Pioneer's approach was proved this year when it rolled the system out to a new group in Brazil. The process took only hours, not weeks or months.

For PointBase, the PointBase Micro 4.5 database, developed with small mobile and wireless devices in mind, performed as expected in extended, demanding field trials. It supported a data-rich environment during complex commercial data-gathering operations that presented just the level of challenges the company envisioned for its technology.

For its part, FieldWorker anticipates additional projects with Pioneer when the current thirdstage 6-sigma testing ends. And of course, FieldWorker would not mind if word about its Rapid Application Development spreads within Pioneer's parent company, giant DuPont.

About Todd Peterson
Todd Peterson, PhD, is emerging technologies manager,
global agronomy and nutritional sciences, at
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. Dr. Peterson leads a
team that develops research and educational programs
to help train and support Pioneer's sales force
in precision farming and other emerging technologies.

About Adrian Browne
Adrian Browne is the chief technology officer of
FieldWorker Products Ltd., which he founded in 1995.
He has spent the last 30 years working in the
technology industry.

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Digital Transformation Blogs
Digital Transformation and Disruption, Amazon Style - What You Can Learn. Chris Kocher is a co-founder of Grey Heron, a management and strategic marketing consulting firm. He has 25+ years in both strategic and hands-on operating experience helping executives and investors build revenues and shareholder value. He has consulted with over 130 companies on innovating with new business models, product strategies and monetization. Chris has held management positions at HP and Symantec in addition to advisory roles at startups. He has worked extensively on monetization, SAAS, IoT, ecosystems, partne...
Whenever a new technology hits the high points of hype, everyone starts talking about it like it will solve all their business problems. Blockchain is one of those technologies. According to Gartner's latest report on the hype cycle of emerging technologies, blockchain has just passed the peak of their hype cycle curve. If you read the news articles about it, one would think it has taken over the technology world. No disruptive technology is without its challenges and potential impediments that frequently get lost in the hype. The panel will discuss their perspective on what they see as th...
Lori MacVittie is a subject matter expert on emerging technology responsible for outbound evangelism across F5's entire product suite. MacVittie has extensive development and technical architecture experience in both high-tech and enterprise organizations, in addition to network and systems administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning technology editor at Network Computing Magazine where she evaluated and tested application-focused technologies including app security and encryption-related solutions. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from th...