The wireless silo

06 October 20207 min reading

Antonis Tzounis, MSc Field Ops Manager Centaur Analytics, Inc.

“Wireless IoT technologies can make old silos usable and reliable again at a small fraction of the cost of renovating or, even worse, rebuilding them. At the same time, being wireless and highly scalable can easily cover large industrial installations as well.”

Smart solutions are of utmost importance for any economy to boost its growth. Agriculture is a very traditional sector, strongly correlated with the production of food. Therefore, it has several important aspects beyond economic growth. New technologies in agricultural sector offer the ways to improve and optimize traditional practices and deal with the challenges introduced by the population increase, the climate change, and the demand for higher-quality food across the world. This creates the urgent need for researchers and companies to develop solutions which will mature quickly to reach the farmers and make the production of food cost-efficient and sustainable.

Improving productivity, optimizing farming methodologies, reducing the environmental footprint and costs, educating farmers are quite popular topics. An aspect of food supply procedures that has not been in focus that much is the offering of more food by losing less food during storage. An estimated 30% of the food is lost or wasted along the supply chain according to FAO . Similar losses are identified in cereals, oil seeds and pulses . A good number of storage facilities, especially silos, are abandoned as they are considered too old or non-dependable. Those silos, however, are often located very near to the harvest fields. This means that the products can be stored right after harvest with minimal transportation overhead.

TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS Wireless IoT technologies can make old silos usable and reliable again at a small fraction of the cost of renovating or, even worse, rebuilding them. At the same time, being wireless and highly scalable can easily cover large industrial installations as well.

Picture 1. The wireless silo(s) architecture: A combination of hardware, sensing, and cloud analytics available for optimal grain management and food traceability.

The advantages of wireless IoT solutions include: a. Zero wiring cost: More flexible, quicker, and cheaper installations. b. Distributed: Many remote facilities can be monitored with minimal human visits resulting in higher monitoring efficiency and less travel expenses and use of fuels. c. Scalability: The ability to cover facilities of any size, making it feasible even for small growers to upgrade their own silos, with a reasonable ROI.

d. Decentralized operation: All the data are residing on the cloud, making them accessible from any location at any time.

Another advantage of adopting IoT technologies in general, is the organizational interoperability. Immutable data can be shared securely with other entities giving the ability to the growers to provide transparency, increase trust and offer quality assurance for their products. This enables them to compete larger entities or participate in aggregated or cooperative schemes. Mature wireless IoT products offer solutions to upgrade an existing silo to a modern, “wireless smart silo”. Wireless solution applications include quality and pest treatment monitoring, inventory monitoring and management, automations and product conditioning, and safety alarms.

Picture 2. A technician installing wireless sensors inside a steel silo to monitor stored grain quality and cognitive pest treatments.

Grain Quality & Pest Management Wireless sensors can transmit metrics such as CO2, O2, temperature and moisture from inside the product, real time. Those metrics as well as the combinations of patterns of them are known for their relationship with stored grain quality, the presence of pest populations and the development microflora which eventually leads to mold and toxins, hot spots, and even self-combustion . Water activity is one more valuable metric, that can be directly measured, and is of special importance when it comes to wheat tempering and flour production . Gas sensors operating like digital noses inside the product, can identify and transmit data at the very early stages of potentially spoiling conditions which can be a very powerful tool for growers and grain managers . In addition to quality, pest elimination practices, such as heat and controlled atmosphere treatments as well as fumigations with certified chemical gases are used to prolong storage time and secure grains from spoilage. Having gas-tight, wireless sensors inside high-temperature or corrosive chemicals raises a several engineering challenges. Luckily, those have been successfully addressed by today’s commercial solutions.

Picture 3. Overview of silos scattered in several locations (A: map view and C: list view). B: Detailed view of a silo quantity (in Tons or Bushels) and quality status with predictions up to six months ahead.

INVENTORY MONITORING Keeping an eye on the quantity your stored grains and any other commodity being kept in a silo, is a powerful tool. Without any further type of monitoring, the user can decide from which locations to fetch the quantities to fulfill an order with the minimal effort and with the smallest distances to travel. Remote inventory monitoring is also valuable to keep an eye on contracted silos. As sensors can capture any grain movement, no matter how small or slow this is, buyers can be sure that the product they will receive will be the same as the one agreed and initially stored in the silo.

Managerial factors that affect post-harvest grain condition, losses and decision-making is not a trivial task. Despite its importance, it is still a domain that has not been researched deeply . Even though, access to various data sources is a good start. Grain managers obtain valuable insights through a rich set of measurements. Combining quality metrics with the inventory monitoring makes the work of a grain manager, a miller, or a grower way more efficient. Knowing exactly how much grain you have, in which silo, and at what condition helps to take the optimal decisions regarding which silos to prioritize for shipping or consumption, and when to sell, when negotiating the grain prices.

AUTOMATED CONTROL & SAFETY Automated is a very important component for any IoT solution. It is the part of the system that realizes machine-to-machine communication allowing for devices to communicate, receive the data from the sensors and consume this information to do several tasks. Interconnected actuators can turn grain conditioning machinery on and off and/or regulate the speed of fans. Closed-loop control algorithms residing on cloud infrastructure or edge computers can take multiple data sources as inputs and do complex calculations to achieve the goal set by the user while optimizing the energy consumption. Those approaches usually achieve more than 30% energy reduction.

Picture 4. The optimized aeration plan, based on the type, the condition, and the quantity of stored grain inside the silo and the inventory sensor/PLC controller for optimal, fully automated aeration.

In the facilities where pest control practices are applied, a number of potentially dangerous conditions can be created. Therefore, interconnected fencing monitoring systems as well as alarms can literally save human lives. Such systems are usually found in the perimeter of fumigated silos and consist of air quality sensors and visual and sound alarms.

THE FUTURE OF SUPPLY CHAIN Agri-food is a sector directly related to human health and wellbeing. Therefore, to maintain trust and reliability along the supply chain, in a globalized market it is essential to record data through the whole life cycle of a product, from the farm to the consumer’s fork. Traceability is important for many reasons, of which, optimization of processes to intensify food production and trust are probably the most important ones.

In all of the cases in which data are collected and stored, multiple challenges arise. Those include the ownership of the data, the access and sharing mechanisms, the immutability, and the reliability, to name a few. Participating in this game requires that the growers and their facilities catch up with the ongoing advances in technology, such as sensing methods, cloud platforms, electronic transactions etc. Fortunately, a good number of solutions developed over the last decade are the key enablers to make this transition of a traditional silo to a wireless silo of the 21st century feasible, graceful, and with a reasonable ROI. is a valuable source of advanced technologies for stored products.

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