A tower alignment fault in the middle of irrigating season can be a big deal for any pivot operator. When you receive the text alert, you might have no idea which tower is causing the problem, or if the problem was a slight slippage in mud, a flat tire or some other anomaly such as a failed motor or gearbox.
Either way, stopping and restarting the pivot will mostly likely not fix the problem, and it could make it worse.
You might have to trudge out to the middle of the field on a hot, humid day, wading through mud and head-high standing corn, and try to figure out what went wrong and where the problem started.
However, when the smart pivot — manufactured by Lindsay Corp., which is based in Omaha, Neb. — becomes commercially available to farmers, those days could be gone forever. Still a couple of years from commercial availability, this entirely new concept in center pivot design offers a platform that brings operational and machine health monitoring capabilities to the pivot.
With the framework of the pivot making several trips through the field each irrigation season, monitoring crop health with the pivot is also part of the plan for the smart pivot.
What the customer wants
“We look back at our regional customer meetings in 2011, and the results of our surveys from those meetings,” says Reece Andrews, senior product manager for Lindsay. “What’s interesting from a smart pivot perspective is that five out of the top seven features our customers were asking for in their pivots back then are smart pivot-related features.”
At the top of that customer list a decade ago was preventing and even predicting alignment faults. In 2011, the capability wasn’t there to allow for that feature, but the smart pivot design changes everything.
“If the farmer just knew which tower was the root cause of the shutdown, he could troubleshoot more efficiently,” Andrews says. “If the corn gets tall, you can’t see the towers, and you have to walk the system to see what’s wrong.”
The smart pivot offers the capability for each tower to be self-aware, so the message that comes through FieldNet, Lindsay’s remote irrigation management platform, would tell the producer which tower was the problem.
“Once we have that structure in place, what else can we do?” Andrews says. “Once we have essentially a ‘smart’ tower, we can create machine learning capabilities — thanks in part to a partnership with Microsoft Azure — and perhaps the machine can understand the difference between field soil conditions, a motor slowly going bad, or a quick failure like a flat tire or a gearbox.
“If a tire is going flat and will be flat in two hours, maybe you can send the pivot back to the road to mitigate more problems” because it would be easier to fix the flat at the edge of the road. If field conditions are the slowdown issue, maybe the pivot could shut off a tower or two to help alleviate a mud or ponding situation.
“The possibilities are endless with something like that,” Andrews says. “The pivot could perhaps have automatic realignment in poor field conditions, and that could lead into the fact that we could actually keep a system from getting stuck in the field in the first place and having a shutdown.”
The machine could make some of the decisions to avoid further problems.
Right now, Lindsay is putting its smart pivot prototypes to the test in fields near its manufacturing plant, in what Andrews calls the “alpha” phase of development. Next season, the company will have a few “beta” phase machines in test fields around the world, including Nebraska, but also in South America, New Zealand and Australia.
If all goes well, the first smart pivots could be commercially available to farmers as early as the 2023 growing season, Andrews says.
Monitoring crops too
Tests are being conducted now in Nebraska and Brazil to understand what the potential is for crop health management through the smart pivot systems. Placing cameras on towers could allow for monitoring agronomic conditions above and below the crop canopy to help optimize irrigation and understand fully what is going on with the crop.
Andrews says Lindsay is testing the capabilities of the pivot monitoring, compared and contrasted to monitoring the crop with drones. One day, it could be possible to integrate soil moisture sensor information into the agronomic system and the pivot, and to automate some variable-rate watering applications. Perhaps the cameras on the pivot could capture insect infestations before they reach damaging levels.
As the “beta” units go out to customers in the first year of availability, as new features are developed and become available on the smart pivot, it will only take an “over-the-air” update to add these features to a pivot system. The smart pivot platform may also be available at some point to be retrofitted on existing center pivots.
The pivots themselves look much like any Zimmatic pivot, but each tower has its own node, instead of a tower box.
“Once we have smart towers, we also have the ability to have sensor inputs to allow us to monitor water flow compared to the sprinkler chart,” Andrews says. “This gives us the capability for speed compensation. If a grower wants to put on 0.75 inches of water, but they are experiencing slippage with the pivot, they are actually applying more water than needed.
"Automatic speed compensation could take flow into account. Additional pressure sensors along the system could help farmers see if the pivot is performing compared to the sprinkler package pressure.”
Andrews notes that once the platform is in place, this gives the ability to look at all kinds of applications, including collision prevention when two pivots overlap, for instance. Right now, Lindsay engineers continue to put the smart pivot platform through its paces to make sure the systems and features are solid, and the capabilities of the pivots are delivered precisely, consistently and safely.
Learn more about the smart pivot, and even try out a virtual demonstration online at lindsay.com/smartpivot.