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'Magic Beans' Monitor Grain Bins (Really!)

15:40PM Oct 03, 2016

IMG_2394-min( Chris Bennett )

Jack the giant killer was right to believe the beans were magic.

Enchanted beans are no longer a fairy tale proposition for agriculture. Thumb-sized plastic beans, packed with a world of sensor circuitry, may soon be ready for grain bins and storage facilities. No handheld devices or elaborate moisture monitoring system required. Toss in a magic pod to monitor grain vitals. One bean to mind them all.

A crop in storage is the lifeblood of a farm, and Andrew Holland’s groundbreaking BeanIoT technology is blazing an unprecedented path of grain protection. Think computer in a bean. Thumb-sized sensor pods are dropped in the auger and become part and parcel of storage. Wirelessly charged plastic beans conduct a sensory symphony, reporting data 24-7 to a smartphone or remote hub. BeanIoT is a grid in a grain stack.

This is a view of the bin from the grain’s perspective. The beans are clever enough to send out a signal when there is a problem. Currently in trials, BeanIoT is harnessing the Internet of Things (IoT) to use the power of wireless connectivity for practical farm application. It measures temperature, humidity, air quality, altitude, a range of gasses including CO2, and movement in bulk-storage grain.

Holland’s company, RFMOD, in Cambridge, England, has an international patent pending on BeanIoT. Each bean contains a bluetooth radio, electronic compass, gyroscope, and sensor devices. All the components act in harmony and communicate with other beans. Holland is currently testing to find the optimal ratio of BeanIoT pods needed for a given amount of grain.

“There’s a sweet-spot for an accurate picture of moisture, temperature and CO2 activity," Holland says. "Imagine gaining access to a continuous flow of data on storage conditions."

RFMOD is developing a multi-platform app capable of programming beans on the go. The beans can be configured individually or by group to measure different parameters and limits as a user requires. Once beans are in place, a producer has multiple monitoring options. The data shows up on a tablet or smartphone as a layered sensory map, and not a screen full of numbers.

“Where is it too hot or moist?" Holland says. "What’s the precise depth of the problem? Stirring or drying only the problem spots saves a ton of fuel."

His idea is to let beans sleep most of the time, and awake as conditions warrant. Essentially, a bean comes alive, takes a reading and returns to slumber. If a problem exists, the bean wakes its neighbors and sends out wireless alerts. RFMOD is trialing recovery methods based on magnetics, filters and placement in bug-catcher containers. The battery charge lasts 14 months and recharges in a few hours.

The beans wouldn’t only be a fit for grain bins. Holland says a producer can reassign the sensors for use in a livestock barn, chemical shed or honeybee hive. BeanIoT could even serve as a pack of yard dogs and monitor agriculture equipment. Place a bean in or under equipment: If the machinery leaves the farm property, the remaining beans sound the alarm and send the owner instant alerts. There are a host of uses beyond agriculture for BeanIoT technology. Asset tracking, home security, lighting, medical facilities and termite detection are market targets.

BeanIoT testing is already attracting attention. Fengrain, a farmer-owned, UK grain marketing and storage operation moving 700,000 tons of crops each year, has taken an interest in the technology.

“The proposed multi-sensor capabilities of BeanIoT certainly tie in well with our unceasing drive to improve product quality, while saving money through new efficiencies,” according to Paul Randle, director or business development for Fengrain.

Holland hopes to complete testing in 2016 and push into the U.S. market in 2017.

“We want to make these bean sensors at scale and cheap for everyone,” he says. “IoT is ready for farming, and the world of possibility for agriculture is endless.”