Vineyard is Sensor Proving Ground

Pickberry Vineyards using technology to monitor growing conditions. Compiled by staff

Published on: Dec 8, 2004

Accenture has unveiled a technology "toolkit" that makes it quicker and easier for businesses to deploy an emerging class of applications based on networks of wireless sensors. Their Sensor Telemetry Rapid Deployment Toolkit cuts the time it takes to build a new application by an average of four to six weeks.

"The toolkit represents a shortcut for companies wishing to build applications today using sensors and off-the-shelf and proprietary software, among other components," says Glover Ferguson, chief scientist, Accenture. "It gives them the capability to quickly deploy remote, sensor-based monitoring applications with minimal software development investment."

Sensor-based applications can help grow plumper wine grapes and locate burnt-out lamps to monitoring the location and contents of rail cars. In fact, the toolkit has been field-tested with an application monitoring growing conditions in Northern Calif. Vineyard.

Pickberry Vineyards, which grows high-end grapes for premium winemakers, is improving growing conditions by using sensors for around-the-clock monitoring of soil and air temperature, relative humidity, moisture, light, wind velocity, leaf wetness and barometric pressure.

"By careful monitoring of vineyard conditions, the sensor network provides the ability to improve wine grape quality," says Lorna Strotz, a co-owner of Pickberry Vineyards. "In today's competitive market, improved quality can significantly enhance vineyard profitability."

A network of 30 sensor nodes has been deployed over 30 acres of vines at Pickberry. Using a cellular connection, the network relays the environmental readings back to a server at Accenture Technology Labs in Palo Alto. The data are monitored via a Web-based portal, which provides vineyard management with up-to-the-minute information. The portal can be accessed from any personal computer.

"Because the grapes are highly sensitive to even very small environmental changes and different areas of the vineyard can differ in temperature by as much as 10 degrees. The sensors provides management with an effective way to maximize the efficiency of their water, soil nutrient and labor as well as the quality of their crops.

"Pickberry demonstrates how embedded computing, sensing and communication capabilities in an agricultural environment create an infrastructure for better management decisions, helping reduce water, soil-nutrient and labor costs and increase product quality," says Bill Westerman, Accenture director of development in Palo Alto.

The experience gained from the Pickberry pilot contributed to the development of the starter kit and validated the strength of the infrastructure, including the ability to perform in harsh conditions. It also uncovered unforeseen challenges, such as curious rodents who enjoyed gnawing on the sensors. As a result, the scientists had to harden the sensors by encasing them in animal-proof plastics.

"The sensor network makes possible a higher yield of top-quality grapes -- no small accomplishment given the price differences between table-wine grapes, which sell for about $65 a ton, and premium grapes, which can sell for more than $10,000 per ton," Ferguson says.

The sensor-based technology used at Pickberry has a range of different applications that are also being explored, from monitoring the corrosion of assets such as underground pipelines and electricity pylons to safeguarding museum pieces from harmful environment conditions and theft.

Sensor Telemetry Rapid Deployment Toolkit is part of an emerging area of technology, which Accenture calls sensor telemetry, that uses sensors and two-way wireless communications to gather insight from products, people and places, and then build new business opportunities based on that insight.

"It's another step toward realizing Accenture's technology vision of 'Reality Online' - a world where objects can sense, reason, communicate and act," Ferguson says.