Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

IoT technologies find a home down on the farm

Two IoT technology use cases -- on a farm and in the Gulf of Mexico -- help prove the role IoT can play in many business scenarios.

Yes, Old MacDonald had chickens, dogs and pigs on his farm. What he lacked were GPS-guided tractors.

Nearly a century after the popular nursery rhyme was first published, James Pillow plows and harvests the fields of his Alabama farm with Internet of Things (IoT) technology steering his John Deere tractors.

If you look beyond the chickens, cows, goats and horses on his 800-acre expanse in Opelika, just outside Auburn, you'll see row upon row of perfectly planted corn and soybean crops. Not only do the straight lines look aesthetically pleasing but the crops' precise placement helps them grow better than if tended by manually operated equipment.

IoT technology down on the farm

"My father remembered seeing changes on the farm happen slowly, similar to aviation," Pillow said. "But technology today changes things fast. It's advanced from my father using mules to me having tractors that coordinate on the X and Y axis, using a GPS interfaced on the Internet, and actually driving themselves. It's kind of humorous."

[Technology has] advanced from my father using mules to me having tractors that coordinate on the X and Y axis, using a GPS interfaced on the Internet, and actually driving themselves.

Aside from lacking GPS, Old MacDonald's tractor also didn't drive itself. But Pillow's green and yellow behemoths move with such precision that all he needs to do is tap a few buttons inside a tractor and it moves surely and slowly ahead, all on its own. Pillow, in the meantime, can work somewhere else on the farm, or he can sit behind the wheel, pretending to work.

Although many consumers still wait for the day when they can eat, sleep, work and play entirely with the aid of smart, connected products -- the promise of IoT technology – Pillow's farm speaks to the present reality of such technology: Connectivity is quietly helping some sectors of industry monitor machinery and control devices remotely.

Self-driving tractors save time, money

IoT technology has yet to manage a consumer's refrigerator -- informing the homeowner of an impending shortage of beer -- but it has saved Pillow an immeasurable amount of time planting and harvesting his crops. And saved time means saved money, which matters to Pillow. Even though 800 acres sounds substantial, his family-owned farm is considered small compared with corporate farms that span more than 1,200 acres.

Any technological edge Pillow can have he'll take. For one, planting in perfect rows makes full use of sunlight and enhances wind power, which reduces humidity. A self-driving tractor also means Pillow can cut labor costs.

Pillow's leap to an IoT farm consisted of him placing bubble-shaped devices made by StarFire on top of his John Deere tractors. A device receives satellite signals from the Global Positioning System in space and the geographic coordinates feed into the tractor's guidance system. This level of precision also comes in handy during harvest season, when GPS guidance steers the farm's John Deere peanut harvester, keeping a till straight and not harming crops.

"With peanut crops, you have to turn them over and let them dry out," Pillow said. "As you move closer to winter, you have more storms, so the speed with which the machines can do things on a dry day is important as your window of time closes."

Using IoT technology to place oil platforms

About 590 miles away from Pillow's farm, IoT technology devices recently guided an industrial operation of massive scale and difficulty. Chevron Corporation wanted to place an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 225 miles south of New Orleans.

But this wasn't an ordinary drop off: The platform cost $5.1 billion and is expected to process, each day, 75,000 barrels of crude oil and 25 million cubic feet of natural gas in a part of the sea known for its harsh currents. The enormous platform -- known as "Big Foot" -- was designed to withstand Mother Nature's blows with the support of 16 giant steel tendons that would serve as anchors -- but first it had to get there.

Eight tugboats moved Big Foot from Corpus Christi, Texas, to its spot in the Gulf of Mexico, and to ensure the expensive cargo didn't end up in the wrong spot, the towmaster who led the operation and the tugboat captains used mobile wireless technology to navigate placement of the platform.

IoT technology makes jobs easier

Chad Bittinger, a systems integration manager for Becker Wholesale Mine Supply, helped install the technology -- Rajant's Kinetic Mesh Network -- on the tugboats and Big Foot. Rough weather delayed the tugboat launch for weeks and Bittinger finally went home to Pennsylvania before Big Foot shipped out in March. But he monitored the successful tugboat mission from afar.

"The pressure is immense for the towmaster," Bittinger said. "The responsibility is to ensure the safe delivery of a platform that cost billions of dollars and years of construction. There's a lot of tension and pressure on him. I wouldn't want that job."

But IoT technology made this job easier. Big Foot had GPS sensors that measured coordinates within five centimeters of accuracy, Bittinger said. The sensors, cameras and real-time data (which included weather and water current) connected to offer a 3D model and give the towmaster and captains the exact location of the oil platform.

Only about two months after the towboat operation, nine of the tendons that latch Big Foot to the 5,200-feet-deep sea lost buoyancy and sunk. But that's an issue for another IoT technology provider.

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