Wireless in the Fields
Wireless in the Fields
Nov. 25, 2003 12:47 PM
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.
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
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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