Grain bin monitoring in 3-D

BRANDON — The latest grain bin sensor technology uses radios mounted inside bin walls, broadcasting and receiving signals that translate into three-dimensional images of moisture conditions and potential problems within your bins.

Grain bin sensors of various types have been available for decades, giving producers valuable information on heat and moisture conditions of the grain. They depend on sensors and cables hung in the bin. However, even though use of these sensors is nearly universal, spoilage rates still average three to seven percent.

An all-new system called Grain Viz should make a dent in that percentage, says Grain Viz engineer Braden Pierce, who was at Ag Days to explain the technology.

“Grain Viz creates three-dimensional images of moisture conditions within the bin, using a totally new monitoring technology,” said Pierce.

“We have 24 radio antennae mounted to the inside wall of the bin. Each antenna serves two purposes, alternating between a transmitter and a receiver.

“In the transmission mode, the antenna broadcasts radio signals through the grain. We listen to those signals with the receiver antennae.

“We broadcast on one antenna and listen on the rest. We read those radio waves in a round robin sequence around the bin, with each antenna alternating between transmitter and receiver. The data we collect in this pattern lets us build a very complex moisture map that is three-dimensional.”

Pierce said this picture gives the producer a greater degree of advance warning about developing spoilage conditions.

It’s so sensitive it can find pockets of packed fines that react differently than other product in the bin and don’t dry properly, he added. Armed with this knowledge, the producer can then turn part of the bin to get the air moving properly again.

He said there’s nothing too special about the radio equipment. The real key is the algorithms that Grain Viz has developed to use radio signals passing through the grain.

Although the physical properties of corn, canola, bean, cereals and other crops are quite different, the methodology and algorithms are similar for all crops.

“We look at the same properties that conventional moisture analyzers look at, only on a much larger scale with a more complex set of data. We do a dielectric or a permittivity measurement of the electric field within the grain in a bin,” he said.

“We know theoretically that size doesn’t matter. We’ve tested bins up to 80,000 bushels so far. The system can work in larger bins, but the resolution of what we see changes with bigger bins. We use 24 antennae on large bins, also.”

GrainViz can do the install or a producer can install them himself. The 24 units are hard wired and are considered a permanent installation. There’s nothing hanging down inside, so there’s no need to worry about the sweep auger.

The data is transmitted through a weather station with a cell radio off-site.

“The farmer owns the data, but it’s very computer intensive, so the data has to be crunched off-site. The producer accesses the information through an online platform they can see with an app on their phone or directly online. They see this very detailed 3-D image of each bin. They can slice and dice that model any way they want,” he said.

“We also have automated software for controlling the drying process in each bin, so the producer can use the automated system or take full control himself.

Pierce said the system is so sensitive it can also be used to conduct highly accurate inventory management, based on density and moisture content. One of the other features is the ability to track the electrical costs for each bin.

GrainViz was developed in conjunction with the University of Manitoba.

The system currently carries a list price of $8,000 per bin, plus a per bushel fee that is tied to bin size.

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