Taking It to the Field

Published online: Feb 18, 2022 Articles, Irrigation, New Products
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This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

Savvy growers throughout the world are rapidly modernizing their irrigation systems by adding automation packages to reduce labor, improve crop irrigation/fertigation, and remotely monitor system and agronomic conditions. The trend began decades ago, but has recently accelerated due to advancements in automation technology that meet agriculture’s demanding conditions—they must be robust, reliable, easy to use, and cost-effective.

Looking for all that and more, Clemson University’s Simpson Research Station in South Carolina was on the hunt for a new irrigation system that could meet the demands of its facility. The main challenge for Clemson, similar to many growers across the country, is size and natural obstacles, such as trees and bodies of water. These potential communication threats have caused issues with irrigation systems in the past, and the university was determined to find a system that could overcome these obstacles without sacrificing performance or reliability.

The Simpson Research Station decided to put its current system up against a new, cutting-edge automation system that is the first in the industry to use ??4G/wi-fi/LoRa/Bluetooth technology. To accomplish this, the facility worked with Chris McWhorter, Toro Ag’s district manager for the southeastern U.S. McWhorter partnered with a prominent local dealer to conduct a head-to-head field test of the new Toro Tempus Automation against the leading competitor operating in the 900MHz radio spectrum.

“A field test of the leading competitor was already in progress, so we just added a Toro installation to compare the two in identical field conditions,” says McWhorter. “Automation telemetry seeks to provide reliable communication between the base station and multiple field controllers that activate distant valves. The challenges to this communication include distance, topography and hindrances such as trees, water bodies and/or other infrastructure. The only way to really know which system works best is to test them side by side—from installation to operation.”

McWhorter began by installing the Tempus base station next to the competitor base station at the research station’s shop. But the base station similarities ended there.

“I was able to confirm the base station’s connection to the cloud via the MyToroTempus app on my phone, and to also report its physical location with a geolocation procedure similar to dropping a pin.”

In contrast, to determine the competitor base station’s connectivity, the door and faceplate had to be removed to manually check the color of LED lights and the number of blinks, and a form had to be submitted online to report the station’s physical location.

Next, a water- and dust-proof standalone controller powered by a 9-volt battery was installed near the competitor controller in a challenging location about a half-mile from the base station and about 60 feet lower in elevation. A pond and forests between the base station and controller also posed communication threats. McWhorter easily strapped the Toro controller onto a field valve, wired the solenoid valve to it, and within minutes confirmed connectivity to the base station via the phone app.

“Both systems successfully communicated in this first test, but the Tempus system’s controller installation was far easier and faster, and, perhaps most importantly, was accomplished by just one person,” says McWhorter. “The connectivity between the controller and the base station also occurred minutes faster.”

In contrast, the competitor system’s installation required a second person to travel back to the base station to communicate via walkie-talkie that connectivity to the field controller was successful. In addition, the competitor field controller required the same infrastructure and procedures as the competitor base station, including a panel removal to test connectivity and form submittal for geolocation.

“From a maintenance standpoint, the 9-volt battery controller is far more attractive than the competitor’s solar panel-powered controller because solar panels have to be routinely cleaned,” explains Elliot Mayer, the research station’s farm manager.

Next, McWhorter traveled to a second test site 0.71 miles away from the base station—two-tenths of a mile farther than the 0.5-mile radius range specification. Again, the Tempus controller was quickly and easily installed and activated. Within minutes, communication with the base station was confirmed on the app, and the solenoid valve wired to the controller clicked—confirming activation from the cloud command.

“Since Toro’s automation uses Bluetooth, I could have activated the solenoid directly from my phone with the manual activation feature, but that would have defeated the purpose of the test so I didn’t utilize that option,” says McWhorter. “Instead, I proved that the valve was activated from the cloud via component connectivity, not local Bluetooth.”

Notably, the competitor controller didn’t successfully communicate with the base station from this second test site. To remedy the situation, the competitor installation team made multiple calls to a support rep. Since the competitor uses mesh network architecture, they were advised to install an interim repeater node midway between the second site and the base station to successfully carry the signal from the controller to the base station. Again, installing this extra node required a two-person team to confirm connectivity in addition to extra time and cost of installation.

When it comes to overall useability, the research station was pleased with the Toro Tempus Automation System and the ability for operators to evaluate its performance from the palm of their hand. The one-person installation, automatic geotagging, and range of connectivity (in spite of distance, elevation and impediments) made the new system an easy choice. Plus, relying on a 9-volt battery rather than solar panels eliminated additional installation costs and cumbersome panel-cleaning requirements. Irrigation should bring peace of mind rather than added work, and that’s exactly what the Tempus Automation System did for the Clemson University Simpson Research Station. 

 

For additional information on the Tempus System, visit automation.toro.com.