Here in the Great White North, we love to gripe about winter. But one of the advantages of our cold season is that it’s much easier and safer to store grain here than in parts of the world that have year-round warmth, where preventing spoilage of stored grain remains a challenge.
I can remember hearing AGCO president and CEO Martin Richenhagen discuss the challenges that grain storage presents in sub-Saharan Africa. AGCO had purchased the grain storage and handling company GSI, and Richenhagen talked of how agricultural development for Africa must be higher in our priorities.
Now GSI has announced it is working on a product that could significantly improve the chances of keeping stored grain in good condition, and it turns out it has the potential to be useful to Canadian growers as much or more than to farmers in Africa.
That new technology, GrainViz, creates a moisture map of grain inside a bin, using technology similar to a medical MRI or CT scan.
“I think this technology, as we’re trying to develop it, could be very, very market disruptive,” says Roger Price, GSI’s director of North American grain sales. “You take that data and run it through very complicated algorithms, and it creates an image of the moisture in the bin. This is like an MRI, only instead of magnetic resonance, which requires very powerful magnets, this is electromagnetic imaging.”
There are already a few different grain-monitoring products on the market, but because GrainViz uses a significantly different approach, it raises the bar on the technology level available to producers.
GrainViz is currently in trials ahead of commercial market release, but Price is optimistic it will see public introduction sometime in the spring of this year.
“We won’t see it until spring,” he says. “We’re in the middle of beta testing it right now. We’ll have the product available to the market, probably in April.”
At first, GrainViz is likely only to be of interest to large-scale growers with very high capacity bins or commercial grain storage operators. That’s because of the cost to install and operate the system.
“It becomes a very economical proposition for large bins, not so much for small bins,” Price notes. “We expect a system like this to cost somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 (per bin). In addition, there is a monthly subscription fee when there is grain in the bins and you want the images created. That’s $200 per month, regardless of the bin size. There is a $1,000 per year site fee as well.”
The system can be installed in bins that already have interior cables to monitor grain temperature, and the data from those cable sensors can be integrated with GrainViz’s own data to add more layers of information.
“You can also overlay temperature from the cables that most people have today,” says Price. “So you can continue to use that temperature system and overlay it with the moisture. It’s not necessary to have that, but if you already have it, it might be nice to see the temperature in addition to moisture in areas of the bin.”
The information collected from GrainViz sensors is used to create a 3D map that shows the moisture variations inside a bin. Those maps can then be downloaded wirelessly directly to a smartphone, device or computer.
“It takes an hour to set up and create the image, and you’ll have historical data as long as you need it,” Price says. “It can detect where the moisture is down to a very small size. It can even detect a leak in a bin, if a sidewall or roof is leaking water in. The thing about this is you know when you’ve got a problem before it’s hot and you have damage. It’s a proactive approach to grain bin monitoring.”
The system can also detect other anomalies inside a bin, such as rodent or insect infestations, or even human entries. This can then add a security layer to the information available to a grower.
“It’s revolutionary technology,” Price continues. “It’s more than just moisture imaging; it also can detect bug infestations. With bug respiration, the moisture is different on that. It can detect inventory levels very accurately. It can detect a person in the bin, which would be helpful from a safety perspective or food security issue. You’d know if there was unauthorized entry into a bin.”
And it could detect unauthorized removal of grain.
The data from a GrainViz map can be also used to automatically control fans in aeration bins or regulate dryers.
“That’s an integral piece of this,” confirms Price. “Most of the time it will be set up that way. It senses the humidity and it has a plenum sensor. It is a grain controller, but it’s a lot smarter than the existing products on the market, because you can see exactly what’s happening, down to the per-bushel level.”
Thanks to moisture maps accurate to about 0.1 per cent, the data allows producers to make much more informed decisions about running fans or dryers, minimizing the risk of grade losses from excess drying.
“If you know you have wet pockets, you’re a lot smarter about blending or fan management or when you’re going to physically turn the grain,” Price says. “If you only knew how much money you were blowing out the roof vents. In addition to throwing that water away, you’re running the fans to do it. And you never knew what that cost was, because you never knew what you had in the first place. Now you can virtually calculate it from week to week, see how much money you gained or lost running the fans.”
It also simplifies the decision on whether or not blending is required.
“You can watch the grain dry, or stubborn pockets not dry,” Price says. “Or, in some cases, moisture getting added back into the grain becomes visible right on the image.”
Installation of a GrainViz system has to be done by professional installers in order to position all 23 sensors correctly and ensure they are calibrated.
“The system has to be tuned, for lack of a better word,” Price adds. “It has to know where the receivers are and what grain is in the bin.”
GrainViz was developed as a joint project with a Canadian company called 151 Research.
“Our next-generation GrainViz imaging technology, combined with GSI’s global grain system leadership, will maximize grain condition and storage efficiency throughout the world,” said Paul Card, CEO of 151 Research, in a press release.
The system would allow Richenhagen’s agricultural development efforts in emerging countries to take another step forward, but the cost for them as for Canadian growers — at least for now — means its initial market penetration on farms will be limited.
But as the cost of all technology seems to fall dramatically over time, the technology level offered by GrainViz could set a new standard for grain storage monitoring and inventory control.
“This is disruptive technology,” says Price. “You may see lenders requiring this monitoring so they can have loan protection. Or you can see producers eliminating a lot of redundant handling, because they know what it is and where it is.”
As this new technology application crosses from the medical field to agriculture, it’s just one more way, it seems, that the term “connected farm” is coming to have an ever more inclusive meaning.