Mobile phones keep irrigation water flowing in the fields

Mobile phones keep irrigation water flowing in the fields

Chennai: Thanks to movies and childhood picture stories and folk tales, the urbanite’s mental picture of a farmer is that of one roaming the fields, seeding, watering, weeding, and sometimes even sleeping underneath a tree by a paddy field.

It turns out that farmers, like their urban counterparts, prefer some of these chores to be automated and remote-controlled. What better remote control could he have than the ubiquitous mobile phone?

That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind m-Irrigation, a mobile-based irrigation control system built by EMRAL Tune Line Auto Tech Ind., an electronic automation company founded and run by M.P. Rajkumar, an engineering graduate and now, a Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) associate.

“It might seem like a purely convenience application, but it saves lives," says 42-year-old Rajkumar, who grew up in his father’s orchards near Madurai. “I’ve seen farm workers go off in the night, carrying a torch or a hurricane lamp to turn on the motor for irrigation, or adjust the water level, because that’s when nobody’s working or walking on the fields and often, the only time when uninterrupted power supply is available."

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Years later, as he founded and ran EMRAL as an industrial automation systems company, one of his colleagues told him about farmers succumbing to snake bites as they went about their business of irrigation in the night. “Something clicked in my mind and decided that developing an irrigation automation control system would be useful, indeed." And thus m-Irrigation was born in 2006.

EMRAL has, in the past four years, sold 750 units of its m-Irrigation system. A unit typically consists of a panel board to be installed at the motor control room of the farm and a BSNL modem attached to the board to receive calls and messages. The board is programmed to receive commands of operation through calls or SMS.

When a farmer wants to switch on his motor in the middle of the night to water his fields, he doesn’t have to trudge all the way to the control room in the dark. All he has to do is dial the number of his modem or send it an SMS commanding it to switch on or off the motor, and out the water gushes!

If that sounds like sci-fi, it is just the basic model that does that. There are many additional features and sometimes specifically customized add-ons to the basic product. According to Rajkumar, the most popular feature is the power-cut alert.

“One of the frustrating experiences for farmers in recent times has been running an irrigation system and not knowing whether the power has been off at any point of time during its operation," he says. “What m-irrigation does is to send an SMS alert, or even a call alert recorded in the regional language for farmers who can’t read, when the power goes down and when it comes back on again. The farmer can also respond to this alert with an sms or call based command to the motor system."

The next most popular feature is the anti-theft alarm, built by connecting a siren to the panel board. The user is issued a security card and a passkey to operate the motor manually, if necessary, through the panel board. When an intruder tries to access the motor valves directly, the siren goes off.

Some of these features have also been necessitated by the growing demand for remote irrigation in corporate farms, clients that EMRAL has been introduced to by TNAU. In fact, the company expects to sell 1,500 units in 2011-12 alone because of the incubation support received from TNAU.

“Our clients are usually sugarcane farmers, who are generally large-scale contract farmers who supply to sugar mills near Coimbatore and Madurai. We also supply to some plantations in Kerala," Rajkumar says. “Now, there is increased corporate involvement in all these areas and so, more corporate clients for us."

Such clients, ordering 50-100 units in a go, are big business for the company, which makes around 20 lakh in revenue per year. It has been managing its operations on a small scale with just eight employees, all technical diploma holders, by roping in local electricians for installation and support. For the product sold at a cost ranging from 3,500 to 9,000, depending on the features, includes installation and a seven-year replacement and service warranty.

“It is a chance for us to scale up, as we have so far been doing an assortment of automation projects ranging from hospitals, home gate monitoring, even banks," Rajkumar says. “As a research-oriented company, this is a challenge for us as we have to innovate to meet demands like a rainfall measurement and monitoring system attached to m-Irrigation."

According to him, the company pumps in about 70% of its revenues back into research and engineering.

“It’s all worth it if the innovation can prevent a worker from dying of a snake bite because he had to go out in the dark to turn on a motor."