Skip to main content

When every drop counts: Schneider Electric transforms agriculture with the Internet of Things for sustainable farming

On the grassy Canterbury Plains of New Zealand, Craig Blackburn raises cattle and sheep in a line of work with a long tradition, in which he keeps a close eye on crops, land, weather and water.

But Blackburn blends modern technology with his agricultural roots to manage the 400-hectare (990-acre) Blackhills farm, a complex, bustling operation with 2,100 cattle and 800 sheep. The farm runs on irrigated water from the scenic Rakaia River, and Blackburn uses SCADAfarm, an industrial Internet of Things (IoT) solution, to monitor and manage his water use.

“Every day I adjust my pivots and pumps for a variety of reasons ­­— shifts in the wind, rain levels, crop requirements or local regulations,” Blackburn said. “Now I can monitor and control my irrigation system easily from my mobile phone, saving me hours of time not spent driving around the farm.”

Craig Blackburn smiles while holding phone in front of farm equipment
Craig Blackburn can remotely manage and monitor his farm’s water use with the SCADAfarm solution.

Developed with Schneider Electric on Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform by WaterForce, a New Zealand irrigation and water management company, SCADAfarm helps Blackburn not only save time, but use less water and electricity, reduce costs and increase yields.

The mobile, cloud-based solution is transforming agriculture with remote controls and advanced analytics, and empowering the global movement of sustainable farming to conserve resources. Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s available fresh water, a shrinking supply with a growing demand expected to increase by 55 percent in the next three decades.

“We’ve been helping transform the industry for a long time, and sustainable farming and water conservation are ways we’re delivering on our commitment to sustainability,” said Rob McGreevy, vice president of information, operations and asset management at Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management and automation.

Blackhills farm is a vibrant business with 30 to 40 herds of cattle, six enormous center-pivot irrigators and about 70 hectares (170 acres) of winter crops to feed the animals during New Zealand’s harsh winters. Operating the farm requires intense water logistics, from pumping uphill for steep terraces to tracking usage for environmental compliance.

Craig Blackburn looks at overview of green farms on laptop while holding a coffee mug
Craig Blackburn manages irrigation with SCADAfarm.

With SCADAfarm, Blackburn can remotely monitor and operate his irrigators and pumps; customize sprinklers for individual crops, soil types and moisture levels; and incorporate real-time data from a weather station on the farm, which helps Blackburn quickly adjust irrigation for rain, wind, heat and other conditions.

The solution saves his data in Azure, making it easier for Blackburn to analyze watering plans and comply with reporting regulations. It alerts him if something is wrong. And it monitors his water storage and allows him to analyze spot prices, so he knows how much he needs and when to pump more based on spot price trends, a task automated and optimized for cheaper electricity at night.

Blackburn has more confidence knowing his equipment is running smoothly, and that he can meet contract criteria from the markets and be profitable, despite windstorms, dry spells and other challenges the farm throws at him.

“I look at our flow meters and sometimes the machine might be saving up to 50 percent of its allocated water use,” said Blackburn, whose yields of fodder beet and barley have also increased. “I can attribute that to the efficient use of SCADAfarm. I wouldn’t go back without it.”

Available in New Zealand, the solution integrates Microsoft Azure IoT Hub services with robust Schneider Electric software and hardware, including cloud and mobility technologies, industrial control systems, soft starters and variable speed drives. Farmers can use SCADAfarm with existing irrigators and pumps, making industrial automation and analytics more accessible.

Two men look at metal water pipes in a field
Craig Blackburn, left, and Ron McFetridge of WaterForce look at water equipment on the Blackhills farm.

“Using a lightweight, flexible cloud solution with mobile capabilities has been key to delivering the benefits of IoT to these farms, as most farms are not built to handle major software installations,” said Cyril Perducat, executive vice president of digital transformation and IoT at Schneider Electric. SCADAfarm is one of many ways the company’s EcoStruxure architecture is helping partners with a comprehensive, scalable solution and end users with advanced analytics.

The work is all part of a goal to help farmers like Blackburn be more agile and efficient, while paving the way for an ecologically sound future. For WaterForce, developing SCADAfarm with a trusted, global cloud platform was essential in transforming agriculture ­­— and part of a 15-year history of helping customers cultivate lands with cutting-edge water systems.

“That’s why we went with Schneider Electric and Microsoft,” said WaterForce director Ron McFetridge.

“Sustainable farming is going to be more important every year that goes by,” he added. “We believe technology is one of the tools that can help farmers stay sustainable as a financial business, but also within the environment they operate.”

Top image: Irrigation on Blackhills farm in New Zealand.