We’re all becoming more and more familiar with the ‘internet of things’ – the burgeoning range of sensor-laden devices that collect, exchange and analyse information through the internet
Domestically, IoT (as it’s commonly referred to) is big business, with wellknown brands such as Alexa, Nest, Ring, Hive and even children’s toys taking advantage of IoT to provide services and features that only a few years ago would have bordered on science fiction. Agriculture, despite or perhaps because of its recognition as one of the least-digitised industries, hasn’t escaped the IoT influence. Everyone from start-ups to established multinationals has scrambled to take advantage of the new-found availability of low-cost sensors (to collect data), advances in artificial intelligence (to analyse the data) and of course the ubiquitous algorithm. Through IoT, agritech is becoming big business in its own right.
But of course, IoT devices demand constant connectivity. In a domestic or urban setting, that’s rarely a problem. Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics reveal that 90% of British homes enjoy an internet connection, while Ofcom reports that 4G coverage in urban areas is around 97%.
It’s one crucial aspect that is often overlooked in making the transition to agriculture. “Too often there’s the assumption that the countryside – the farmer’s place of work – has access to the same quality mobile phone signal as towns and cities,” says Martin Ducroquet, the cofounder of Sencrop, a provider of smart, affordable on-farm weather stations, which transmit superlocalised, from-the-field weather data to the cloud every 15 minutes.
“Anyone who works in the field on a regular basis will know that’s not the case,” he laughs. “The official line from Ofcom is that less than twothirds of rural areas have access to a 4G signal, while even fixed broadband often remains dismally slow in rural England. Data transmission is awkward and unreliable.
“What’s more, connecting with a mobile network requires some kind of a subscription for a SIM card. If you can’t connect your IoT devices to wi-fi, then you need individual cards and monthly subscriptions for each and every IoT device you intend to operate.”
Working to perfect their innovative ag-weather station, which can record windspeed, rainfall, temperature, humidity, and leaf wetness, Martin and his co-founder, Michael Bruniaux, decided the SIM card route to connectivity was a dead-end. “From the beginning, we made one of Sencrop’s central features its ability to connect, peer-to-peer, with other stations in the vicinity. It’s a collaborative approach. At Sencrop, in conjunction with our 10,000 users, we are building the largest onfarm weather network in the UK and Europe.
“With weather data, it’s a case of ‘the more, the merrier’. The more data points we have to analyse, the more accurate we can be in the advice that’s provided to users through the app and interface.
“We wanted to pitch the units at a price point which would encourage farmers to buy more than one unit, to be able to take advantage of this ultra-localised technology. But if multiple stations meant multiple SIM cards to manage and pay for, we felt that would be a disincentive to realising the system’s full potential.
“Moreover, we thought that users would – perhaps rightly – be wary of a system that was reliant on mobile phone signal, when many of those users would know from experience how patchy and unreliable a rural mobile signal can be. “We thought there had to be a better way to provide connectivity,” he says, “and that was when we set our sights on Sigfox.”
Sigfox is a low-powered, longrange radio network – but few people have heard of it. Described as a 0G network, and superficially similar to a mobile phone signal, the network relies on a series of base stations. But because of its long range, it requires fewer masts. There are more than 1,000 Sigfox base stations in the UK, compared to between 30,000 and 40,000 mobile phone masts – yet Sigfox achieves nationwide coverage of 95%. Created specifically to deal with the IoT boom, Sigfox now boasts more than 6 million connected devices – from urban streetlights to water meters.
The figure’s expected to keep rising as more IoT developers opt for what looks likely to become an industry standard: trials with satellite coverage begin later this year. The technology communicates in a part of the radio spectrum reserved for ‘Industrial, Scientific and Medical’ devices, using a wide-reaching signal that isn’t blocked by solid objects and can even reach underground. Sigfox masts ‘listen’ for messages from enabled devices, without needing to establish a network – features which reduce both energy consumption and the complexity of the connected device.
“Sigfox communication is simple, energy efficient and low-cost,” notes Martin, “three attributes which suited us and our development devices perfectly.”
Simplicity means fewer complex parts in the device, Martin points out, reducing cost of production while allowing easy setup and configuration. “It’s what allows us to turn out a professional-quality ag-weather station with 24/7 accessibility for £399.”
Meanwhile, lower energy consumption causes less drain on batteries. “Ours last for more than three years,” Martin points out, “despite transmitting data every 15 minutes. And the low cost of accessing the Sigfox network means we can price our service subscription, which includes customer support, at less than the cost of a yearly SIM card, including the comprehensive app that brings together real-time data, forecasting and disease alerts.” The company launched its threestrong model range in the UK earlier this year, following successful demonstrations at CropTec and LAMMA. Long-term, the company hopes the UK will be as enthusiastic about building a weather network as our European neighbours – more than 8,000 units are already in use on farms through France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“Users commonly cite the reliability and affordability of the Sencrop units, but that’s simply a knock-on effect of being able to use the Sigfox network with an affordable product that brings value,” notes Martin. “A SIM-card based unit would be more expensive to buy and run, there would probably be gaps in the data feed, and users’ choice of site would be more limited.”