Addressing Nationwide Mega-Drought with IoT Solutions

IoT solutions providers SweetSense Inc and LoRa satellite company Swarm have teamed up to monitor water usage and conditions for farmers in the southwest, as reported this month by the RFID Journal. The two companies have deployed sensors and connectivity technologies and are currently working with a dozen farmers in regions heavily affected by the mega-drought, helping them monitor and manage water usage with the aim to reduce costs.

US farmers have been working within a mega-drought that has had a dramatic impact on water availability for crops and livestock. The US Bureau of Reclamation has just declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time since the dam was built in the 1930s. IoT technologies are being introduced to the farmers to enable them to gather some data on how much water is being pumped through the fields or directed to animal throughs. These technologies would hopefully help them optimize and manage watering practices.

SweetSense’s Resilience IoT technologies are already in use in Africa and are now being deployed in the United States, most recently leveraging LoRa-enabled satellite connectivity from Swarm. The Swarm network is intended to enable low-cost data access anywhere around the world. Its network consists of two-way connectivity for IoT devices via satellites. Based in Boulder, Colo., SweetSense has deployed approximately a dozen of the LoRa-based water-management sensors, using connectivity from Swarm, at farm sites in California’s Solano County. More are slated to go live in August 2021.

Offering aid

Deployments of earlier versions of sensors with other connectivity technologies were first utilized to provide clean water in specific cities in Africa.

According to Matthew Tolbirt, the company’s chief business officer, SweetSense’s solution was first devised around 2012 at Oregon’s Portland State University by associate professor Evan Thomas, now the company’s CEO. Thomas transferred to the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder 10 years ago. Afterward, SweetSense was created to solve an infrastructure monitoring problem in East Africa.

At the time, nonprofit organizations were donating money to dig wells in remote rural and poverty-stricken African communities. However, SweetSense found that contracts for maintenance were not fulfilled. That meant well pumps might break and remain unrepaired, leaving a community without access to clean water, often for months at a time. The company solved that problem by providing real-time well monitoring and transmitting water levels wirelessly to the company’s server. The system was deployed at 700 sites, serving a population of four million people throughout Kenya and Ethiopia. Many of the projects are funded by USAID or The World Bank.

SweetSense’s solution has traditionally leveraged cellular or Iridium satellite-based data. However, cellular systems are limited to places where there is a neighboring cell tower, and traditional satellite technology could be expensive.

Four years ago, SweetSense began working with Swarm to enable a low-cost IoT solution that leveraged Swarm’s LoRa-based satellites and its Tile modems where the company’s systems are in use. SweetSense has been expanding the data it collects and combines sensor readings with weather statistics and NASA’s geospatial data, enabling it to forecast droughts in areas where sensors are in use. Most existing systems, however, still utilize either cellular or Iridium satellite connectivity.

Closer to home

Today, the same technology is being used to address the mega-drought, which has been going on since 2000.

Recently, Tolbirt says, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation approached the research team at CU Boulder’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering, who in turn, enlisted the help of SweetSense. “Frankly, some of the communities in the western states of the U.S. are facing some of the same issues,” he states, “so the foundation sought to address them using use SweetSense’s technology and the Mortenson Center’s know-how.” Farmers have little data about their own water consumption, even as pressure builds to better manage the dwindling supply.

Across the U.S. Southwest, most water is being used for farming and agriculture. In California, farmers have not been required to measure the usage of groundwater on their property, but that will change. The state’s legislation, known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), will mandate farmer-led management of water usage to support the supply in groundwater basins. To accomplish that goal, farmers will need to use some form of metering on water pumps.

With funding from the Moore Foundation and the Mortenson Center, SweetSense is deploying the Swarm-enabled wireless system of water-use sensors for volunteer farmers, so that it can better understand the impact of groundwater pumping on the overall water supply and develop better models for predicting future droughts. SweetSense shares the data with the farmers and also provides an anonymized version of the information to CU Boulder’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering.

A dozen sensors have been deployed in Solano County, while 50 more are expected to be taken live within the state in August. More units will be sent to Colorado and New Mexico. “These are farmers who understand the fact that things are changing climate-wise,” Tolbirt states.

SweetSense monitors the power consumed by water pumps to manage water flow, and it can thus provide variable-use systems by which the flow can be shut down during peak-use and high-cost times. It can then resume operation during lower-cost times, such as evenings. The firm has built Swarm’s satellite technology into its own sensor devices, which transmit data to Swarm Tile modems.

According to Sara Spangelo, Swarm’s cofounder and CEO, the modems forward the data via eight-inch antennas to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, using Swarm’s proprietary protocol and cloud-based software. The SweetSense software provides analytics on sensor readings and link that information with other data.

“Farmers are some of the most entrepreneurial people you’ll meet,” Tolbirt says. “They try to be stewards of the land. We’ve run into a gamut of farmers, but the most successful are the ones ahead of the curve—they see what’s coming.” He explains that farmers are curious to learn the details.

For SweetSense, the goal is much larger than new technology. “We’re not designed just to sell another widget—we care about the science,” Tolbirt states. “We’re looking at the whole picture: the whole water system and environment, to help farmers be more resilient.” Many farmers have already changed some of their watering practices to reduce consumption, such as by deploying drip irrigation. SweetSense’s variable-power solution could enable them to better ensure the 200-horsepower electric pumps that operate these systems run at optimal times.

For that purpose, SweetSense provides a CT clamp in its seventh-generation sensor device, which can be fitted around the power lines that feed the pumps and then be remotely activated based on energy demand and cost peaks. “We’re providing the ability to save money by turning pumps on and off when energy is in high demand,” Tolbert explains.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has enabled both African cities and U.S. farmers to circumvent issues brought about by drought. Further developments will transform the way we go about our livelihood–and continue to find solutions outside of our control.

Using the same tools for different end goals

In Africa, the technology is being used to understand infrastructure health, whereas the California system is about managing consumption. “California is a conservation story of ‘How can we conserve water, conserve energy and change consumption patterns to benefit farmers businesses?'” Tolbirt notes. The system can operate with a variety of sensors that track such conditions as soil moisture, precipitation, and temperature. A solar panel powers the sensors, while the CT clamp is powered by the water pump.

The Swarm-based SweetSense technology has been in use at six pumps in Solano County to date and the system is working well and yielding reliable data. The farms being covered include fields of tomatoes and almonds. Initially, SweetSense is providing farmers with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet listing the energy and pump data. The rest of the information is delivered to researchers CU Boulder for use in drought forecasting and management.

Tolbirt says U.S. farmers will use the system for at least two years. Ultimately, by employing Swarm’s LoRa technology, SweetSense has been able to bring down the cost of wireless data transmission, since Iridium’s satellite use tends to be five or six times more expensive than Swarm, the company estimates. Currently, Swarm has 120 satellites orbiting Earth, with an additional 30 expected to be in space by early next year.

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