Fit enough: Internet of things' expansion continues

I bet you didn’t know this, but the internet of things is about tracking moooves.

The rapidly-expanding technology continues to increase the ability users have to control various aspects of their homes and businesses.

One of the more interesting places its use is growing is on farms, feedlots and ranches.

“When you are talking about farming or ranching and the internet of things, that might sound like an oxymoron to people who aren’t in the industry,” said Jimmy Kinder, a farmer and rancher in Chattanooga, Oklahoma, between Lawton and the Red River.

“But the technology ultimately will make a big difference in how we do our work, and that will not only benefit us. It also will help our animals, the environment and consumers as we use this technology to cut our costs.”

Kinder said he is particularly interested in research that the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Oklahoma State University are doing using a FitBit-like device to keep track of cattle.

These devices started out being mounted on collars the cattle wear, though later ones are integrated into their ear tags.

Already, the research shows that ranchers who use that technology can gather up much more complete information about their animals than they’ve ever had access to before.

For example, the technology can work together with a scale to both identify and get an animal’s weight each time it visits a feed or water trough and then transfer that information into a software program that provides real-time information to the rancher.

Collecting it that way is much easier for the ranchers because they know if a cow didn’t come in. It also does away with the need to round up the cattle into a pen and then run them across a scale periodically.

Rancher also will be able to quickly tell how their herds react to a new feed or to weather conditions.

These FitBit-like units also can include real-time locaters that capture movement data, so ranchers can see on a map where their animals are without having to physically go and check.

Some use an ear canal sensor that can measure a cow’s temperature.

Researchers are studying the most efficient ways to move the data to software, and are writing software that defines “what’s normal for a cow.”

A FitBit-like tag costs about $10 or less, depending on its bells and whistles. Software and readers can cost more than $10,000, Kinder said, but he also said prices will come down as the technology continues to be rolled out.

Kinder said the effect of this technology will be to change snapshots of information that farmers traditionally have gathered into streams of data that are more like a motion picture.

With that, Kinder said he and other farmers and ranchers will be better able to manage their operations.

“What’s the limit to what can we find out? Nobody knows,” Kinder said.

Consumer trends

Jay Ellison, the executive vice president of operations for U.S. Cellular, visited with The Oklahoman recently about how the internet of things is continuing to grow and influence products and services that general consumers crave.

“It is really about how are we going to connect everything that is part of our daily lives,” he said.

“Yes, it has kind of been a buzzword for the last three to five years, but it really is coming to fruition. Going forward, it’s going to be a pretty big thing.”

Point solution devices, such as thermostats, cameras, lights and locks that a consumer can control through his or her phone are becoming widely available, he noted.

Options to control those devices also expanded through the use of Google Home or Amazon Echo devices.

Manufacturers are starting to put Wi-Fi connectivity and cameras into refrigerators and other appliances so that a consumer could, for example, check to see if they need to pick up milk before they head home.

On the business and farming side of the internet of things, Ellison said the use of the technology already is saving many operators time and money.

Utility companies, for example, use smart meters to monitor consumption so that they don’t have to send workers into the field to collect the data.

Ellison added that all of these types of programs continue to improve their performances as U.S. Cellular and other wireless companies improve their networks.

A fifth generation of network upgrades will allow for even greater speeds.

“Being able to transmit high volumes of data very quickly with very low level of latency is really where we are heading. That will be the next generation,” he said.

Ellison said he expects the internet of things’ use to continue to grow as today’s young adults and youth continue to enter the market.

One key, he stressed, is for users of the technology to be sure to password protect their phones in case they are lost or stolen.

While networks such as U.S. Cellular work hard to protect their infrastructure from hacks, that won’t stop a thief who has access to a victim’s phone.

“If you’ve got a layer of security there and protected yourself, they won’t be able to break in to that.”

Meanwhile, software developers continue to upgrade programming for users to make the experience as hassle-free as possible, Ellison said.

“It has got to be very easy,” Ellison said. “If it is not real customer-centric, maybe its not ready for prime time.”

Ellison said hot items in 2017 consumers are seeking include home security systems, net cams and virtual reality applications for both business and home use.

On the farm, tools to help operations succeed are what owners are interested in.

Growing it right

Kinder said his operation uses the internet of things to monitor moisture levels in his fields and to remotely turn on or off irrigation systems.

At his shop, his hands regularly use the internet to access information about herbicides and fertilizers, and also do so to order repair parts for the farm’s tractors and vehicles.

One technology Kinder said significantly helps is based on software developed by OSU that helps farmers analyze how much fertilizer they need to get a good crop.

Historically, farmers would set their fertilizer applications for winter wheat, for example, based on recommendations made by university agronomists.

Now, by applying a rich dose of fertilizer to a test strip in each field, farmers can take visual and infrared measurements of both it and plants from outside that strip once the crop is emerged from the ground.

They get those measurements by using a GreenSeeker sensor developed at OSU that determines how much fertilizer is needed to generate optimum yields.

As part of that calculation, the software imports current and historical moisture, temperature and growth data obtained both from the user and from the Oklahoma Mesonet system.

Kinder said those calculations save him both time and money, since he only uses as much fertilizer as he needs.

And while Kinder uses a hand-held sensor to take applications, there also are tractor-mounted sensors that can make real-time decisions about how much fertilizer to apply, and others that can be attached to a drone to develop fertilizer application maps that can be programmed into the tractor’s applicator software.

Meanwhile, farmers are embracing GPS technology and further refining it so that its accurate to within about a half-inch for use by auto-steer tractors.

“These are win-win advancements for everyone,” he said. “It is a win for me, because it helps me cut expenses and helps preserve the environment. It is a win for consumers, because those wasted costs then aren’t passed along to them.”