– Above: Picklogger in the orchard.

In a way the Internet of Things (IoT) can be compared to the ghost in the castle – nobody has seen it, but everybody is talking about it.

But this is not true for inventor and industrial designer Retief Krige from RKID Industrial Design Consultancy in Stellenbosch. With a practical mindset and an innovative approach, Krige has the knack to translate the immensity of what the Internet of Things has to offer, into pioneering and practical solutions.

The Picklogger.

The Picklogger.

Retief Krige, designer of this innovative tool.

Retief Krige, designer of this innovative tool.

One of these is Picklogger, a novel invention in the field of agriculture to capture data that relate to the yield of annual fruit crops such as citrus and avocado per area – even per tree – within an orchard.

Picklogger
Krige was commissioned by Agri Technovation’s product inventor, Albert Bijker, to improve and further develop a solution that would provide accurate information on the production of their orchards, measured during the harvest season, to improve orchard management and to make production decisions for the future.

The result was Picklogger, a solution with the capability to accurately log the location of individual fruit when hand-picked in an orchard. It consists of retrofit hardware that is secured to the standard clippers that the workforce uses when harvesting from the trees. Software located inside Picklogger records individual events each time when the stem of an fruit  is cut which, in turn, registers the GPS location of that specific item of fruit.

Data captured in this way during a day’s harvest is stored and is automatically uploaded via a Wi-Fi connection to a cloud-based data platform when the Picklogger units are placed in battery charging banks for overnight charging.

The pickdata are presented daily on Agri Technovation’s MYFARMWEB platform and can be analysed and overlayed using the platform’s online tools to compare various layers such as physical soil classification, soil chemical analysis and leaf analysis. This allows farmers, agents and analysts to determine, among others, the yield per tree, per orchard as a whole, or per sector on the farm. This information, combined with data that relate to the specific orchard on other levels such as irrigation, fertilisation and pest control, allows users to gain a comprehensive insight into the state of the orchard. This, in turn, can be used to optimise returns on input and to ensure a superior yield in line with modern-day trends referred to as “precision agriculture” or “site-specific crop management”.

Collecting and interpreting data
“For me, the Internet of Things is a network of connections where data can be delivered or collected,” says Krige. “But collecting data is merely the start of it. Behind the data lie interesting and valuable algorithms and other means which allow us to interpret the data and make predictions based on these interpretations. Key to data is the power of interpretation. The more data you can collect, and the more data that is available on different levels, the more you can create comparisons between the different levels in order to identify trends.”

Putting this into a practical perspective, Krige explains that the Internet of Things allows users to monitor everyday activities and to collect appropriate and sufficient data about these activities to identify habits, draw conclusions and make predictions in order to render improvements. “This already happens via smartphones in the daily lives of the average person,” he says. “But, in the not too distant future, the Internet of Things will be encapsulated in most everyday things that are around us, without us even having to deliberately interact with them,” he adds.   

For this reason Krige is of the opinion that product developers should start off by identifying areas on the Internet of Things which contain information of high a value, and to develop products according to that.

Different product development routes
When it comes to product development for the Internet of Things, Krige points out that it can be done in two different ways – one being what he refers to as the “building block” methodology, and the other being an integrated approach.

Those who prefer the building block approach usually select existing, off the shelf, components that each offer a specific functionality. These components are then put together as building blocks in order to create a new, IoT-enabled, product.

“Although there is nothing wrong with this way of doing things, it has its limitations,” says Krige. “As these products had not been developed from a form follows function viewpoint, they are often bulky, not easy to industrialise and expensive when it comes to mass production.” He, furthermore, cautions that these manufacturers are often dependent on the availability of the building blocks from various suppliers for the production of their modular products.

“An integrated approach, on the other hand, allows the developer to create products according to exact requirements which, at the same time, are easy and economical to industrialise,” says Krige.

Taking it a step further
At the same time Krige cautions that the Internet of Things is not an environment that consists of compartments that products merely slot into. He sees it as a chain with a series of links where each link plays a specific role to create the desired effect and outcome in the end.

“But the success for any IoT-linked product not only lies in its ability to function as a connection in this chain,” says Krige. “An IoT product should play a bigger role by being able to gain control over the links that come before and after it in order to pull the elements of the chain closer together and to tighten the functionality of the chain. This creates more room and opportunity for what is to come further down the line. In doing so, the product developer allows for a better nest of the various elements of the chain, which leads to increased productivity and more economical solutions.”  

He illustrates the point by referring to the multifaceted approach when developing Picklogger. In this case, the form factor played a decisive role as the product had to be retrofitted to an existing clipper without interfering with the functionality of the clipper or the comfort of the person using it. It, furthermore, presented a considerable mechanical design element into which the electronic component of the design had to fit. Added to this was the design of the charger bank and the integration between it, the clipper and the functionality of the data transfer when the clipper is nested into the charger.

For this project, the functionality of the product, together with its mechanical, electronic and industrial design had to run in step with one another in order to come together in a concerted finale. In doing so, the success of the project relied heavily on the ability of the designer to ensure synchronised control over all the links in the chain. “In fact, by placing a premium on the design side of the project, we were able to pull the various elements of the chain closer together in order to reach an enhanced outcome,” says Krige.

He puts his success with the project down to many years of experience in the fields of product development, industrial design and manufacturing, choosing the right collaborators, and the ability to think outside the box. “With Picklogger, we did not set out to solve a problem, but to realise a dream,” Krige explains.

No more ghosts in the castle
Realise a dream? Probably without intent, Krige has managed to touch the essence of the Internet of Things with these few words.

For many, the Internet of Things will remain merely a dream, a flight of fancy. But for hands-on inventors the likes of Krige, it is an inspiring, modern-day platform which offers limitless possibilities, especially in the field of capturing, integrating, interpreting and utilising data.

For them, the Internet of Things is no longer the ghost in the castle only to be talked about. They have made the Internet of Things real and are using it as a powerful platform to deliver innovative products to serve mankind now and even more so in the future.