Four years ago, I spoke with Adam Wolf, then the CEO of Arable, which was building a connected device designed to help farmers manage their irrigation and improve crop yields. Its device — the Arable Mark — was launched in 2017. It contained sensors to measure rainfall, temperature, wind, humidity, and more so it could advise farmers when to water their fields.
Wolf is now the chief scientist at Arable, which has just released the second generation of its connected sensor, the Mark 2. In addition to providing weather insights, the new version embeds a multispectral camera, solar radiation sensors, and crop data into a cellular-connected device that farmers can install themselves. Arable has also expanded its product line so it can act as an all-in-one advisor to farmers.
I’ve been a fan of IoT in the agricultural world for years, so I was excited to see Arable’s maturation, but also curious what the company had learned after three years of conducting literal field tests in 40 countries. The Arable Mark 2 is rolling out now (the coronavirus has delayed the production a bit), and Wolf shared with me three things that Arable learned — and changed — from one design to the next.
“Birds shouldn’t have caught us by surprise,” he said, but somehow they did. The first sensors ended up covered in poop because they were the tallest things in the fields. The second-generation device has bird spikes.
Perhaps more relevant for product designers building connected devices that are placed in fields, the team also switched out the internal cellular antenna for an external one. While the internal antenna yielded a cleaner design, when you put a device in a remote area, every little bit of help you can get in trying to reach a cell tower is important. The new antenna is oriented vertically, to collect the strongest signal. “We had designed [the original Mark] with this cell antenna that was the least capable of capturing the signals from the tower,” Wolf explained.
Another challenge was around moisture that was building up inside the device and confusing the sensors. As outdoor-rated gear, the original Mark needed a lot of protection from the elements, but that protective design didn’t allow for much airflow, and moisture quickly became a problem. “We spent a lot of time focused on water detection,” said Wolf. A change to the Mark’s physical design fixed the flaw.
Arable has also expanded the number of geographies it can support from a connectivity perspective. As the company has matured, it’s been able to invest in new SKUs that have radios for specific countries. And as part of its expansion into services, Arable added a multispectral camera that can visually check on nearby plants for stress and show farmers what it sees. Combine that view of conditions on the ground with upgraded machine learning and more weather data, and the Arable service can now offer far more than just irrigation tips.
I’m glad to see an early startup in this space make it to a second-generation product, especially in an area as important as the food chain.
Internet of things says
IoT solutions are focused on helping farmers close the supply-demand gap, by ensuring high yields, profitability, and protection of the environment. People will learn from this post.
Mark Slosberg says
We purchased one of the earlier Marks back about 3 years ago and tried it for a season. We returned it (for a half refund, good customer service) at the end of the season after we determined that, while it yielded interesting information, it (and they) were really not exactly ready for prime time. The unit was well-built and packaged, it was expensive as was the annual SaaS Data contract. The information was interesting but in order for it to be really useful even for our small farm, we would have needed way more units than we could afford. It was very “sciency” but lacked simple data like soil moisture and by the time they added that it really got expensive. Their software development at the time was very immature and the user interface really lacking. The data was only available at the time from CSV extracts that they had to hand pull for us at the time. I still get emails regularly with non-existent CSV files because they never took me out of their email register;-).
I wish them well because they are really smart and good people to work with but a lot of the use is still kind of a “green washing” PR activity for well-heeled wineries and the like. It is interesting what 3 years of both market and technology evolution brings.
We are now using a much lower cost network of sensors from an outfit in Nebraska that has more of the basic low cost and necessary LoRa infrastructure in place and uses standard, widely available sensor technologies that have been out for years. This company’s software infrastructure is much more advanced with powerful (but complex to use) APIs available. I think that Arable now has APIs but they were going to charge more for that too as I recall. The UX for the one we are using is a bit more advanced but still lacking in usability and power for most growers as all of these vendors focus on wiz-bang “eye candy” rather than solid and compelling user experiences that live on after the initial gleeful demo period;-).
Stacey Higginbotham says
Thanks for the input. I think the business models that tech is trying to apply to farm customers need some work.
Mark Slosberg says
Seriously need work. It is amusing and to actually talk with real farmers and growers about what they think of “tech”.