Bean-sized Monitoring Device Could Revolutionise UK Farming

Daniel Butler
Sun, 27 May 2018
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The excitement surrounding innovations in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) normally focuses on items such as phones, cars, and even entire buildings.

One innovator, however, is keeping things small by developing bean-sized devices that collect data and connect to the internet.

BeanIoT is the creation of British innovator Andrew Holland who says that the size and shape of a bean is optimal for a dynamic and discreet monitoring device. These pocketable ‘smart’ beans could be implemented to measure the performance of gym-goers or even monitor whether outpatients are in medical distress. Or, in an agricultural context, the beans could be tactically placed in grain silos to monitor temperature, CO2 and moisture, and therefore pre-empt crop spoil.

 “Holland plans to test the BeanIoT prototypes this summer in silos around Cambridgeshire, where his company RFMOD is based. He chose to test his devices in an agricultural context partly because Cambridgeshire is grain-producing country and also because his brother is a farmer.

 “Farmers are some of the most practical people in the world,” explains Holland. “They aren’t going to invest in anything unless they can see a clear return on investment. They’ll be the perfect judges.” If the field tests are successful, Holland intends to commercially launch the BeanIoT in the next three to five years.

 “Developments in big data such as this are an increasing trend in the agricultural industry,” explains Charles King, Head of IIoT at Challenge Advisory. “Corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta are investing heavily in technology that is able to monitor soil quality or changes in atmospheric pressure with incredible precision.”

 Holland explained that current silo technology is comprised of monitoring devices suspended from wires, which are expensive and impracticable for many smaller farmers. The ultimate aim is to get the price of each BeanIoT down to less than $30.

 Grantham says that integrating technology into “a traditional sector” is no easy task.

 However, the growing applications of the “industrial internet of things” (IIoT) is revolutionising agriculture as it is in most other industries, Grantham explains.

 “Many Eastern European countries are reliant on agriculture to provide a large proportion of their GDP and, therefore, employ a disproportionately greater share of total workforce when compared to the service and manufacturing industries,” says David West, senior partner at Challenge Advisory.

 “Nations like Bulgaria and Poland, where roughly a fifth of the labour market works in agriculture, are eager to benefit from technological advances to improve efficiency, which is often inhibited by lack of infrastructure and outdated business models.”

Holland’s Dream for BeanIoT

In Holland’s vision, BeanIoT is effectively a precise early warning system. Before your grain stores are spoiled by mould, the network of ‘smart’ beans will alert the farmer of excess moisture. Likewise, the beans’ carbon dioxide monitor will quickly detect an insect respiring before an infestation occurs. All of this collected data can then be observed and managed remotely by a farmer on his computer.

The significant drawback of these small, reusable devices is there retrieval from large grain silos. Holland poses two potential stages of retrieval: either actually at the farm or after the grain reaches the processing plant (where transitional monitoring can be done).

The ‘smart’ beans can then make themselves detectable. “It’s not like you have tiny bits of dumb plastic just floating around in your grain,” Holland says. “These beans are constantly sending signals back to your computer, giving details on their exact location, or if they end up somewhere they aren’t supposed to be.”

Trials are Imminent

Holland will begin putting BeanIoT in trial silos by September 2016. RFMOD has already partnered with two Cambridgeshire farms for the second stage and the technology has also attracted the attention of several larger agricultural companies.

The other big challenge Holland faces is getting the price down to $30. Even though the devices are small, they will contain sophisticated connectivity and monitoring technology. The system also requires a lot more than one bean to produce effective and accurate results.

But as with most new technology, the initial purchase cost will be high until it is viable to produce them on a mass scale. Once that is realised, Holland sees endless applications for the BeanIoT device. “Picture a smart home thermostat, where instead of one place where temperature is being monitored, you’ve got beans all over the house giving specific data,” Holland suggests. “Or you put a bean in a package, so you can monitor its progress while in transit. Imagination is your only limit, really.”