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Electrical Engineering

Digital farming

Company develops precision equipment for use in agriculture

A technological leap and an increase in revenues. These were the fruits collected by the company named DLG Automação, from the town of Sertãozinho, which was counted upon the collaboration of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) to develop precision apparatus principally directed towards the agricultural market. The first device to be ready was a piece of equipment that determines the level of compactness of farm land soil, a useful measurement for crops to grow strong and with high productivity. As well, a second device is in the final development phase of a system for generating a differential correction system, in real time, for receptors of the Global Positioning System (GPS). The objective is to reduce the imprecision of the system’s receptors that indicate, by way of satellite signals, terrestrial coordinates such as latitude and longitude. This project was highlighted at the Gerdau Best in the Land Awards of 2004, dedicated to the agricultural machinery and equipment industry, winning in the category of Research and Development. “Through the research and development work to project and develop this device, we managed to master a new technology, that of microprocessor apparatus, and to diversify our line of products. With this we reached new markets and our revenues income rose from R$ 200,000.00 in 1997, the year in which the company was founded, to R$ 1.4 million in 2004” says Glauco Guaitoli, a director of DLG, which also manufactures automation systems and equipment for various industrial segments.

In the opinion of the agricultural engineer Nelson Luís Cappelli, from the Agricultural Engineering Faculty (Feagri) of Unicamp, who coordinated two of the company’s projects funded through FAPESP’s Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program, the development of the equipment will help to resolve certain technological bottlenecks for the wider use in agriculture of precision instrumentation in the country. The analyzer of soil compaction, known as a penetrometer, is identified as PNT-2000 and is the only electronic, portable and geo-referenced model produced in Brazil. “The imported models have a very high cost of around US$ 5,000.00, while ours sells for R$ 5,000.00” the researcher explains. As well as showing the level of soil compaction, it reveals the depth of the compacted layers and their spatial location. “Compacted soil damages the growth of plants because it holds back the development of roots and their better fixation, as well as lowering the level of the absorption of water and nutrients” says Cappelli.

The PNT-2000 demonstrates advantages in relation to other devices available on the market because the process of the acquisition and storage of the data is all automatic. “In conventional penetrometers the user needs to carry out annotations at each point, whilst in ours the data remains stored in the equipment itself” says the engineer Claudio Kiyoshi Umezu, who also participated in the creation of the product. “Furthermore, as our equipment provides geographical coordinates, the user does not need to make a topographical map to identify the localities of the sampling points” he said. The geo-referencing (the exact determination of latitude and longitude) depends on the use of a GPS receptor, linked to the equipment.

The working of the penetrometer is relatively simple. As well as a unit for storing the information, the device has a metal shaft of 60 centimeters in length, with a small metallic cone at its extremity. In order to know if the soil is compacted, the user introduces the shaft into the earth and a force sensor measures the resistance to penetration of the shaft into the earth. The data collected reveals the level of compacting of the land. The device also has a distance sensor, using ultra sound, which measures how much of the shaft was introduced into the soil. This sensor allied to the positioning obtained by way of the GPS, makes it possible to construct 3-dimensional maps of the agricultural soil.

“This is an apparatus that is of major use in areas of reforestation and of growing crops using intense mechanization, and which have a high index of compaction, such as sugarcane plantations and soya fields” says Guaitoli. Right from the start of its commercialization, in 2002, eight units of the apparatus were sold to universities, research institutions and a reforestation company in the south of the state of Bahia .

The technical innovation came about through a partnership between the company DLG and Unicamp, by way of another PIPE project, and has also brought benefits for rural agricultural producers “With the use of the GPS system with differential correction, also called DGPS, the farmers can make productivity maps, identify regions with infestations of pests and build up maps for the application of fertilizers with greater precision” says Cappelli. According to the researcher, this is the first device of this type that is manufactured in the country. “We decided to create this system in order to lower the cost of equipment and thus make the technology available to a larger number of possible users.” The imported system costs at the minimum US$ 8,000.00, a price a lot higher than the DLG equipment, which should have its price defined by the launch date, forecast for the end of the year.

In order to understand the operation of a DGPS station, one first needs to know how the GPS system works. This system, created in the decade of the 1970s by the American government, makes use of a constellation of twenty-four satellites positioned around about 20,000 kilometers in altitude. For a considerable time it was only used for military ends until, in 1995, it began to be opened up for civil use, then with a signal error intentionally introduced of between 100 and 140 meters. Starting from the year 2000, the American authorities, with the objective of widening its commercial use, decided to deactivate the uncertainty of the signal and to leave the system with its original level of imprecision, of around 15 meters. In order to reduce this error, it is necessary to resort to the DGPS, which consists in a fixed base located at a known geo-referenced point. Thus whoever, possesses a GPS receptor can capture the DGPS signal. The error then drops to 2 meters.

The DLG device possesses a GPS receptor base and a correction processor responsible for the identification of the error size. The information on the error is sent by means of a radio transmitter to the mobile localized GPS, for example, on tractors or combine harvesters. Currently in Brazil there exist few options for the correction of the signal, as well as being expensive and very often having receptors that are imprecise. “Our DGPS is going to reduce the error to something like 2 meters and can be used with almost all of the GPS receptors” says Cappelli.

The Projects
1. Development of a low cost electronic geo-referenced penetrometer (nº 00/08816-0); Modality Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program; Coordinator Nelson Luís Cappelli – Unicamp/DLG; Investment R$ 172,270.00 (FAPESP)
2. Development of a low cost system for the generation of a differential correction system, in real time, for the GPS system (nº 01/03249-2); Modality Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program; Coordinator Nelson Luís Cappelli – Unicamp/DLG; Investment R$ 265,615.00 (FAPESP)