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Getting IoT underground: More than burying a mobile phone and attaching a sensor

Interview with Johannes Tiusanen, Co-Founder and CSO of Soil Scout

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European Business: Your company manufactures small sensors which are put up to 2 m deep into the soil, from where they wirelessly transmit data about the soil’s moisture, temperature and salinity. What are the main benefits of your technology compared to the traditional approach of keeping track of these data?

Johannes Tiusanen: The sensor may be at the core of our product, but our solution encompasses much more than just removing the wire on which sensors had previously relied upon. The whole idea behind our company came about in the early millennium years when online weather services became available for farmers. This was a real game-changer in the agricultural sector and it allowed farmers to check their local weather forecast at any time. Since 50% of all agronomic activity happens underground, we realized that farmers should have access to the same quality data for their soil as they now had for the weather. It soon became our mission to get the field online.

But Soil Scout is about a lot more than merely replacing the handheld meter with an underground solution. There had already been weather stations where a couple of sensors could be plugged in to set up a soil-monitoring station. One of the problems with this approach was, however, that all farm equipment needed to avoid that section of the field. The fact that these soil-monitoring stations could only conduct measurements in parts of the field that weren’t farmed was clearly detrimental to the purpose they were meant to fulfill in the first place, because that location may not be representative for the field at large.

Not all locations within a field are equal. That is the fundamental basis behind precision agriculture, where farmers first conduct their analysis spatially. They find the places in the field where their crops grow better than elsewhere; then they conduct their soil sampling, they adjust their inputs or improve the drainage within a field, so that crops in all parts of a field grow as well as in its best locations. If you only measure one location, you would have no idea of the whole spatial variability within a field. That’s where Soil Scout comes in, where lots of sensors at different depths and at different locations within a field monitor a whole host of data, from which the differences within a field can be assessed, to allow for soil monitoring at the level needed for precision agriculture.

Johannes Tiusanen
Our main vision is to become THE reference for underground IoT, because we have the only truly underground radio technology available. Johannes TiusanenCo-Founder and CSO

European Business: Your product was originally designed for the agricultural sector. Among your customers, however, golf courses and sports stadiums are found just as well. Do you believe there are even more untapped markets which could take an interest in your technology, and if so, which?

Johannes Tiusanen: Absolutely. Our main vision is to become THE reference for underground IoT, because we have the only truly underground radio technology available and we have patented it internationally quite extensively. We are constantly looking for more new applications, where an industry has a need to communicate with something underground, but they had never imagined that it could be possible.

We began with agriculture, but we soon branched out into golf courses, whose management requires much higher precision than farmers’ fields. Golf courses had already had a long tradition of conducting extensive soil measurements and their managers then acting based on that data, while farmers were still following the notion: “the weather is what it is”, and essentially coped with it.

We are currently considering moving into infrastructure monitoring. We have completed a very successful pilot installation, where we conducted frost monitoring for a rail service in Finland. Frost and thaw bend railroad tracks, not many millimeters, but many enough to restrict driving speeds. We are also considering branching into landslide monitoring, where we would put motion sensors onto our Soil Scouts in order to be able to detect when the soil becomes moist enough for a landslide to become probable and to detect when a slight movement may already be occurring.

European Business: Was there a specific event that led you to come up with the idea behind Soil Scout?

Johannes Tiusanen: I am a nineteenth-generation farmer, and in the 1990s my father installed lots of controlled drainage wells in our farm fields, because draught is a major problem for farming in Finland. Operating controlled drainage presented us with a problem, since we didn’t have sufficient insight into how moist the soil was. We required quite substantial amounts of data to understand what the water-holding capacity within a field was. That is why we decided to get our hands on some sensors, but they were pretty obnoxious obstacles in the field, so my parents and I decided that there had to be a simpler way, like burying a mobile phone and attaching a sensor to it, only that the real solution would need to be a lot more sophisticated, of course.

Soil Scout came about through the old-fashioned way of finding a problem, doing the science and then setting up a company. Johannes TiusanenCo-Founder and CSO
Johannes Tiusanen

I contacted the professor for radio engineering at the Helsinki University of Technology and he found the idea interesting and suggested that I write a PhD on it, which is exactly what I did. Soil Scout came about through the old-fashioned way of finding a problem, doing the science and then setting up a company.

European Business: Recent developments show that water is becoming an ever scarcer resource in many parts of the world. Do you believe that your technology could allow for a more sustainable management of this precious resource?

Johannes Tiusanen: Roughly 30% of arable land is artificially irrigated, but that area produces 60% of agricultural output. According to rough estimations, water-use efficiency is at approximately 50%. There are reasons why today’s prevailing method of irrigation control is systematic over-irrigation. Undershooting irrigation in the absence of extensive moisture data would lead to an almost immediate loss of crop, whereas a slight overshooting is not a problem for the plant and thus a safer approach, as long as water and energy are available in abundance. Scientists have proven, however, that irrigating just a little less than the crops actually need might save lots of water, but only lead to an insignificant loss of crop. That is known as controlled deficient irrigation. But optimizing irrigation is fickle, because you need to know the specific moisture content of the soil in order to be successful.

This becomes especially important in many areas where irrigation is carried out with fossil water and there is no renewal in the ground water. Over-irrigation in those areas will flush the fertilizers off the top soil, in addition to the irrigation being completely inefficient. Constant knowledge of the actual moisture levels in the soil is of the utmost importance when trying one’s hand at controlled deficient irrigation. Failing in the attempt may mean that all your crops will be lost. Many farmers readily accept the approach because of its many benefits, but they have a hard time accepting yet another IT system, which is essential, however, to supply them with the data they need in order to irrigate effectively. Soil Scout can accomplish just that, and this is why we are constantly looking for the right partners who already collaborate with the farmers, to allow us to plug into their existing systems.

Johannes Tiusanen
Constant knowledge of the actual moisture levels in the soil is of the utmost importance when trying one’s hand at controlled deficient irrigation. Johannes TiusanenCo-Founder and CSO

European Business: What are your plans to find these partners – and what kind of partners do you think are suited best for collaboration with Soil Scout?

Johannes Tiusanen: We are in the process of setting up a dealer network and finding distributors whose businesses are synergetic to our system. In Canada, we are working with a consultancy company which is also carrying out the installation of our system and the interpretation of the data for the farmers. We are currently looking for dealers and distributors who find synergy in adding our product to their portfolio, particularly in Central Europe.

Interview: Julian Miller Photos: Tuomas Rokka