The whole point of irrigation controllers is to optimise the irrigation time so as to minimise water
consumption and control the amount of water applied.
Digital technology is revolutionising all the industries, including the traditional ones
We all use the web on a daily basis to gather information and to compare and to find out about products and technology. This is, of course, the case for private individuals concerning automatic irrigation, a concept that is not always very well-known or understood. The Internet has also developed very rapidly for professionals who wish to search for technical information and find less expensive sources of supply. The development of online market places that include professional products is only going to expand.
However, connecting the devices directly to the Internet allows for new uses to be introduced and a direct remote interaction to be formed with these products. Whereas they were previously very costly and difficult to implement, these solutions were restricted to large sites, such as golf courses, municipalities and recreation parks. Nowadays, the technology of the connected devices has put these solutions within everyone’s reach and made them more affordable, even at no additional costs compared with non-connected solutions.
Once it is connected to the Internet, irrigation becomes smarter
Internet access for the controller allows it to be connected remotely and carry out in real time all the operations normally done in front of the controller.
Apart from enabling remote intervention, internet access allows the controller to ‘talk’ with a remote intelligence, the ‘Cloud’ or the manufacturers’ platforms and take into consideration the weather data and also information taken from local sensors, such as a temperature gauge and a moisture sensor.
The user can be alerted about what is happening in the installation via notifications, which reach him or her directly on the smartphone, providing information about the irrigation run time, the adjustment of the water budget and any possible overconsumption or leakages, if the installation is fitted with a water meter.
The user can easily group together and control centrally a number of controllers which, in the past, were isolated and thus any modifications had to be carried out at each individual controller.
These technologies are now within reach of everyone and access to Weather is often free
In order to obtain data from a meteorological station, up until recently it was necessary to invest in a localised station and use it with costly and complex central control software. Providing the controllers with internet access allows the use of met station networks, which are free or included in the services subscribed to by the manufacturers. The automatic adjustment of the irrigation run time is carried out directly by the often free Cloud platform of the manufacturer, which transmits it to the controller and sends notifications to the Apple or Android applications, which are practically free. Agricultural applications are increasingly using internet-connected met stations for large agricultural areas. Often interconnected, they form a network, which is increasing rapidly. It is anticipated that the municipal and residential markets will be benefitting from the use of these networks of online stations and their low cost, even makes these stations accessible for smaller installations.
These technologies are spread over a wide range of installations, which are mains or battery operated
The first types of controller to benefit from an internet connection were mains or 24V battery operated controllers with a Wi-Fi card or WIFI dongle adapter. Internet access was, therefore, often free of charge.
The first Wi-Fi-connected controllers began to appear from 2010 onwards within the framework of start-ups. Nowadays, most of the major established brands of irrigation equipment have a mains-driven controller with a Wi-Fi connection. The decision to adopt the ‘connected’ option can sometimes be made in a second step, with some manufacturers offering standard controllers, which would only need an adapter (dongle) or an accessory to be added to convert them into a connected version.
As the Wi-Fi technology is very energy-intensive for a battery-operated device, these controllers powered by batteries have incorporated other technologies: Bluetooth is commonly available with these modules but the range is still limited and it cannot be accessed remotely. Some manufacturers have linked these battery-powered controllers to an internet box via a radio relay, but this technology is often difficult to configure.
The technologies coming from from the emerging IoT (Internet of Things) markets have begun to arrive. The benefit is that they use very little energy for the communication. They allow for very compressed complex messages to be sent, these being bidirectional over a long range. The LoRa (long range radio) technology is little by little being used for applications in agriculture, the municipalities and also in large residential areas, due to the fact that its range is more than one kilometre in a straight line, a little less in a heavily-populated urban environment.
Depending on the type of radio technology selected, a subscription might be needed. The LORA technology exists in several forms:
• ‘Public’ LORAWAN networks: the European countries are covered by a telecom operator. One subscription per item of equipment is required. The SIGFOX network works on the same principle.
• ‘Private LORAWAN network: a local authority can call on the services of a telecom supplier to provide the city or municipality with the cover of a LORAWAN network with restricted access. A number of different services (irrigation, remote reading (of meters), lighting management and managing a fleet of vehicles) use this network for connecting controllers and meters. It is necessary to allow for the cost of providing access for the devices and a large number of services will have to be connected to make the use of such a vast network worthwhile.
• ‘Private’ LORA modulation: some controller manufacturers use LORA technology to deploy a private network exclusively for their own equipment, which can be battery- or mains-driven. This has the advantage of being free and not relying on the quality and sustainability of the public network. The LORA gateway is then connected to the internet via a local Wi-Fi network or by a dedicated GSM subscription for individual gateways (base stations) powered by batteries and solar panels.
The advantages for the end user and also for the irrigation professionals
The end user can clearly benefit from the new digital possibilities for controlling irrigation more precisely. However, these new technologies also bring new opportunities for the professionals to offer new and enhanced services. In fact, an installer can now follow the customers’ installations remotely and offer monitoring services without actually having to travel to the site.
There is now a market for the replacement of the traditional controllers opening up for the distributers and installers, a market which could be very active during the off season.
And it is all evolving, becoming “future compatible” and integrated into the concept of the ‘Smart Garden’ and the ‘Smart City’.
An unconnected traditional controller should contain all the functions and usages that we would want for a customer using his/her controller and this from the moment it leaves the factory.
An internet-connected controller receives instructions to adjust the programming via the Cloud platform. It is ths possible to define the rules, the criteria to optimise the irrigation run time and the data that allows the irrigator to make the right decision regarding the duration and timing of the irrigation cycle. These internet-connected controllers are, therefore, more appropriate for the future needs and ways of thinking of the users, being future-compatible in themselves.
Furthermore, irrigation is increasingly falling within the scope of applications and platforms that group together other areas to be automated:
• The garden has become a smart garden by combining the irrigation process with the internet-connected swimming pool (managing the filtration time, monitoring the state of the swimming pool and recommendations for treatment, managing other equipment such as a heat pump, a robot) and with the internet-connected lighting system.
• The city has become internet-connected by combining the irrigation system with, for example, the lighting, managing the fountains, monitoring the equipment and the schedule of the response teams with GPS trackers, managing the waste removals cycles and all this on the platform of the manufacturers of irrigation equipment or within the more extensive ‘Smart City’ systems.
By using internet-connected solutions to manage the irrigation, the automatic irrigation professionals (manufacturers, distributors and installers) are consequently in a strong position for accessing new areas of business in the residential and municipal markets.
We are in the early stages of developing digital technology for our irrigation professions and internet-connected controllers allow for the irrigation system to be remotely connected directly to the smartphone of the user or professional.
Identifying overconsumption and leaks and assessing whether the irrigation is unsuitable in the light of the past and future meteorological data are new possibilities offered by internet-connected controllers.