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Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 49 (2005) 272285

FPGA-based real-time remote


monitoring system
Joshua Mendoza-Jasso, Gerardo Ornelas-Vargas,
Rodrigo Castaneda-Miranda, Eusebio Ventura-Ramos,
Alfredo Zepeda-Garrido, Gilberto Herrera-Ruiz
Biotronics Laboratory, Faculty of Engineering, Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro,
Cerro de las Campanas s/n. C.P., 76010 Queretaro, Qro., Mexico
Received 12 January 2005; received in revised form 17 May 2005; accepted 16 June 2005

Abstract
Real-time monitoring provides reliable, timely information of crop and soil status, important in
taking decisions for crop production improvement. The contribution of this research is the development
of a real-time remote monitoring system that acquires data from any kind of sensor to be transmitted
by radiofrequency to a computer with an interface module, situated within a 900 m radius. This
allows the sensing of large area fields with a system capable of monitoring crop local environmental
or physiological status; the data transmission and storage in the computer is made in real-time. To
design this device, the system on a chip approach was followed. Implementation was done in a field
programmable gate array, which ensures a low cost. The performance of this system was tested
using different kinds of sensors and compared with various commercial monitoring systems under
greenhouse conditions. The experimental results showed the system to be reliable. For all experiments,
the system obtained an R2 greater than or equal 0.975 in a regression analysis between data acquired
from our monitoring system and data obtained from a commercial datalogger with linear fit and
second-degree polynomial fit.
2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: FPGA; Real-time data acquisition; Remote monitoring

Corresponding author.
E-mail address: gherrera@uaq.mx (G. Herrera-Ruiz).

0168-1699/$ see front matter 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.compag.2005.06.001

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1. Introduction
Evaluation of agricultural production systems is a time consuming and difficult process
because it means performing visits to selected crop fields to be able to measure and register
certain physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the cultivated areas (Gomide
et al., 2001). Monitoring of soil conditions has been traditionally performed through in
situ measurements, soil sampling, as well as further analysis in the laboratory (Kaleita
and Tian, 2002). Plant conditions are monitored by taking various measurements, viz.
evapotranspiration and photosynthesis, among others. These measurements generally are
acquired only at a single point and do not provide data representing the spatial variability
present in soil and plants.
In spite of the use of sensors for in situ measurements, manual collection of data may
become a task requiring many people. This is a problem when the monitored area of land
increases, and therefore, the number of monitoring sensors is considerably augmented.
Furthermore, the acquisition of these measurements can be quite expensive and tedious,
especially when the sampling is done at very short time intervals, resulting in a large
quantity of measurement data (Kaleita and Tian, 2002). In order to minimize time and use
of people to collect data, agricultural technology is moving towards the handling of variables
and their transmission via a remote monitoring, with the consequent saving of resources,
as well as an optimization of the technique.
Bangjie (2002) showed the advantage of remote monitoring for complicated landscapes,
multi-crop systems, large countries and small family farms in China. Netafim A.C.S. (2004)
reported a commercial system called IrriwiseTM , which is a remote monitoring system of
crop conditions that allows sending data from the sensor to the PC at 15-min intervals.
The objective of this research was to develop a low cost wireless monitoring system
to obtain measurements of current field conditions in real-time. The system can monitor
from 1 to 16 sensors, send information to a computer via radiofrequency in a half-duplex
mode with a 9.6 kbps speed transmission up to a distance of 900 m. Due to the bidirectional
communication between PC and the system, the PC works as a remote massive storage
device. Since the system was developed in a field programmable gate array (FPGA), it
offers low cost, high capacity of expansion and the ability of monitoring several types of
sensors, such as resistance temperature detector (RTD), capacitive humidity sensors, wind
speed or direction sensors and soil moisture sensors, such as gypsum blocks, tensiometers,
granular matrix, etc.
A number of technologies are available to solve data acquisition, analysis and transmission problems. The most common technologies are microprocessors, microcontrollers
and digital signal processors (DSPs). Their advantage lies in the fact that programming is
simple and many of the instructions are already established. However, these devices require
a high frequency clock and, in the microprocessor case, many extra integrated circuits,
which increase the cost and the printed circuit size. The main problem with these devices
is that it is impossible to monitor more than one sensor at a time, due to their sequential
nature (Torres-Huitzil and Arias-Estrada, 2004); thus, the possibility of real-time control
decreases.
Another engineering solution available is using programmable logic. With regard to
this type of technology, instructions or functional blocks have to be designed one by one.

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This technology has the advantage that, all processes can be concurrent (Hanho and Gerald,
2003; Torres-Huitzil and Arias-Estrada, 2004), that is, they can acquire data from all sensors
simultaneously, and at the same time transmit the previous data. Another advantage of these
devices is that, since the blocks are designed for a specific task, they become specificpurpose devices. An FPGA is a form of programmable logic device that makes use of
very large scale integration technology. It has a high integration capability, coming from
8000 to 10,000,000 gates in one integrated circuit. FPGA implementation not only offers
the possibility of optimizing and reconfiguring the designed device, but also the capability
to perform multiple operations at the same time, yielding an excellent economical benefit.
Gschwind et al. (2001) implemented a RISC processor in a FPGA, Reyneri (2004) employed
the FPGA to develop a Simulink-based hybrid codesign to improve signal processing, Ali et
al. (2004) used the FPGA to implement a micro universal asynchronous receiver transmitter,
while Romero-Troncoso et al. (2004) used the FPGA to develop a tool breakage detection
system for CNC milling machines. However, applications in the field of agriculture have
not been reported in the literature.
For monitoring soil, atmospheric and crop conditions, one measurement per second is
sufficient to achieve real-time control. In greenhouses, this is an advantage because critical
failures are detected just a second after they occur, so the PC can take control actions almost
instantly. As an example, in a greenhouse with a nutrient film technique irrigation system,
if the remote monitoring system (RMS) sends an abnormal water condition measurement
(e.g., water flow = 0), the PC can activate the appropriate alarm. RMS may be connected to
the sensors of a weather station to function as a commercial weather station; data on current
weather conditions may be stored in a PC through the RMS interface.

2. The remote monitoring system


Fig. 1 shows the components comprising an FPGA-based remote monitoring system.
The radiofrequency transceiver (RFT) enables remote data transmission and reception. The
real-time clock gives the measuring order to the monitoring system. The sensor interface
(SI) provides the RMS with the flexibility to plug in any kind of sensor. The monitoring
system is implemented in a FPGA, which is in charge of controlling all acquisition functions,

Fig. 1. The system block diagram.

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275

data processing, answers to PC data requests, programming sampling time, as well as the
transmission of data and error messages.
2.1. Radiofrequency transceiver
The RFT allows wireless connection between the system and the PC. In order to save
space, transmission and reception are carried out using the same antenna. For this reason,
communication necessarily has to be half-duplex. With a wireless communication in fullduplex mode, transmission time is reduced by half. Speed and scope transmission depend
on transceiver capabilities and antenna characteristics, respectively. A TXM-418-LR (Linx
Technologies, 2004a) transmitter and RXM-418-LR (Linx Technologies, 2004b) receiver
sharing a 418 MHz whip antenna (Linx Technologies, 1999) are used and all these elements
provide 9.6 kbps up to a distance of 900 m.
2.2. Real-time clock
The real-time clock works as a clock calendar register and has a special feature, programmable time alarms. These programmable time alarms can be continuous for specific
intervals, for instance, every minute, every hour or for a determined time. This saves space
in the FPGA, because it does not work on measuring time. The integrated circuit allows the
user to set sampling time intervals of 1 s or longer. The PC sends sampling and current time
to the monitoring system through the RFT using the 32-bit protocol explained in Section
2.4.5. One of the monitoring system activities is to program the real-time clock alarms and
set the current time. The alarm interruption programmed on the real-time clock marks the
beginning of the measurements. In addition, a pin-out of the real-time clock provides a 1-Hz
signal used by the monitoring system to measure frequency.
2.3. Sensor interface
The SI module is divided into four kinds of sensors, one with a 420 mA output, one with
frequency output, one with digital output, and a granular matrix sensor (GMS). Almost all
climatic and industrial sensors have 420 mA protocol transmitters. Following this standard
only a RCV420JP (Burr Brown Corporation, 1997), which is a current to voltage converter,
and a serial 12-bit analog to digital converter (ADC) per sensor are necessary. Measurements
with the GMS are usually taken by using an AC current to prevent electrode polarization
(McCann et al., 1992). In the GMS case, an oscillator was designed and equipped with a
voltage level adapter. The SI block can be reconfigured, in order to adjust output signals
from sensors to the system. This means that if only 420 mA transmitters are plugged to
the RMS, then only the RCV420 and 12-bit ADCs for the selected number of sensors will
be required. Frequency and digital output signal sensors can be plugged in as a digital input
needing only a voltage level adapter.
2.4. Monitoring system
The monitoring system module (Fig. 2) is composed of different blocks. The synchronization block adjusts external asynchronous signals coming from the sensors to the monitoring

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Fig. 2. The monitoring system functional blocks.

system internal timing. The measure state machine block, which is described in the next
section, is composed of the ADC controller and the period-time meter. This allows the
RMS to read practically all kinds of sensors. The data preprocessor unit is a specific application DSP for adjusting data to their final values by reducing to 8 bits the size of every
datum without losing significant precision. The memory block saves measurement results.
Once they are sent to the PC, they are deleted from the memory block. In addition, it
saves the incoming instructions from the PC in a first infirst out memory. The 32-bit
asynchronous receiver transmitter (ART32b) sends data and error messages from the RMS
to the PC and receives instructions from the PC for the RMS. The control unit controls
and coordinates all units, in addition to executing all instruction requests coming from the
computer.
2.4.1. Measure state machine
The measure state machine acquires the data given by the ADC, measures the GMS
period-time output signal, as well as measures sensors with frequency output. A finite state
machine controls all ADC sampling times and habilitation signals, but each ADC output
is stored in a different 12-bit register. To measure GMS, which responds to frequency, a
sub-module called period-time meter was designed. Fig. 3 shows the period-time meter
structure. For measuring period-time, first, the cycle selector unit receives an habilitation
signal to initiate a cycle delimitation process. Secondly, the cycle selection unit enables
the time counter. At the same time, the time-based generator generates a 1-MHz clock
signal. Finally, the time counter increases the 1-MHz pulse count while it is enabled. The
period-time meter output signal is the cycle period-time in s. Frequency measurement
only needs the time counter; in this case, the time counter is enabled by the 1-Hz signal
from the real-time clock, and takes the frequency input signal to increase the pulse count
using an accumulator (Accum) to increase this value, so the time counter output is the signal
frequency in Hertz. In the case of sensors with digital output, the measure state machine
transfers the output value directly to the memory block without further processing. Every
sensor plugged to the RMS has its own ADC, period-time meter, time counter or digital
input, depending on the case.

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Fig. 3. The period-time meter. The output signal of the period-time meter is measured in microseconds.

2.4.2. Data preprocessor


This is the key for optimizing data transmission and its storage. A diagram of the system
is shown in Fig. 4. This module carries out the conversion of data acquired by the measure
state machine for each sensor unit. For this conversion, a second-degree adjusting equation
needs to be solved for each sensor. For this reason, only parameter registers are updated
for each sensor type plugged to the terminal. Parameters a, b, c and Padj are updated with
the instruction received from the PC; the instructions are shown in Table 1, Section 2.4.5.
IR is the feedback value of the Booth Radix multiplier; the other input signal is equal to
1. The blocks are described as follows: the word MUX represents a multiplexer; the word
DEMUX represents a demultiplexer and the word Accum an Accumulator. To solve these
equations, the data preprocessor was designed as a specific purpose DSP. It is based on

Fig. 4. The data preprocessor DSP. The signal inputs are described as follows: Inputs a, b and c are parameters of
the data preprocessor. P is the read value of the sensor. Padj is P minus an adjustment value.

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Table 1
Remote monitoring system instruction set
Name

Code

Parameter 1

Parameter 2

Parameter 3a

ID establishment
1-DTR
2-DTR
3-DTR
AP a
AP b
AP c
AP adj

0000000
0000001
0000010
0000011
100****
101****
110****
111****

000000
#s
#s
#s
a2015
b2015
c2015
adj2015

0000000
0000000
#s
#s
a148
b148
c148
adj148

00 & ID
0000000
0000000
#s
a71
b71
c71
adj71

Sub-indices indicates bit number; #s indicates the sensor number written in 6 or 7 bits, according to the
parameter length and & means concatenation.

a multiplier accumulator of 20 bits 20 bits using the radix-4 sequential Booth algorithm
(Rubinfield, 1975).
2.4.3. Memory block
The memory block unit keeps hold of the data until a new sampling is done or a data
request from the PC arrives. It also keeps the instructions sent by the PC until they are
executed. The memory block is a 32-bit random access memory (RAM) divided in two
parts: transmission and reception. Transmission works as a normal RAM, while reception
works as first infirst out memory, so the incoming instructions can be read in order. Four
instructions can be stored in the reception part before the first instruction is executed.
2.4.4. The 32-bit asynchronous receiver transmitter (ART32b)
The ART32b is the functional block that keeps the RMS in communication with the PC.
Its function is to set up the data to be transmitted serially and to receive instructions from
the PC. This serial communication unit works as a commercial universal asynchronous
receiver transmitter. The transmission and reception format goes from the least significant
bit to the most significant one, 1321. That is, it sends an initial bit, then a 32-bit word
to end with a stop bit, with no parity bit. Transmission speed is programmable and may
vary from 1.2 to 9.6 kbps. The ART32b is composed of four units, as shown in Fig. 5. The
Baud-rate generator is a frequency divider that adapts the clock frequency to programmed
transmission speed. The transmitter passes the incoming data from the control unit and the
memory block from a parallel to a serial form for its transmission. The receiver reads the
34-bit datum, directs it to the asynchronous receiver transmitter control and then returns to
a stand-by state to wait for the next datum. The asynchronous receiver transmitter control
coordinates the other three units and checks the proper data reception.
2.4.5. The 32-bit serial protocol
The proposed protocol is compossed of a 32-bit long instruction. This protocol can be
explained as follows. The remote monitoring system ID goes from bit 32 to bit 28, with
this ID, up to 32 RMS can be identified. Instruction code is 7 bits long specified from bit
27 to bit 21; within this length, 64 instructions could be programmed. Parameters 1, 2 and
3 are instruction arguments located from bit 20 to bit 1; parameter 1 is only 6 bits long.

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279

Fig. 5. The 32-bit asynchronous receiver transmitter (ART32b) protocol.

Established instructions are: data transmission request (DTR), adjust parameter (AP) and
ID establishment. Table 1 shows the instruction format. In AP code, four asterisks (****)
represent the sensor number.

3. System development
The FPGA is a device that can be programmed only once. Therefore, the system to be
synthesized in the FPGA must have the support of many simulations in order to avoid errors,
because once the chip is programmed the internal configuration is fixed and does not allow
any subsequent changes.
Several simulations were carried out to test all internal signals of each unit. Once the
simulation testing was finished, interconnection at the simulation level among each unit
was carried out to obtain the systems performance. Before the synthesis of the RMS
was laid on the FPGA, units were independently implemented to perform physical tests.
For this intermediate implementation, a complex programmable logic device (CPLD)
CY37512P208-125NC (Cypress Corp., 2001) was used on a prototype card. Each unit
was tested in the CPLD because it is reprogrammable, allowing to debug all the errors in
the design. Once simulations and tests ruled out any error, the implementation of the RMS
on the FPGA was carried out.
For the physical implementation of the RMS an ACTEL 54SX32A-TQ144 FPGA (Actel
Corporation, 2001) was used. FPGA specifications gave 32,000 logic gates available, being
the outcome an equivalent of 23,065 gates and 853 flip-flop logic complexity. Expected time
delays at functional blocks were 58.8 ns, which is below the 250 ns operational clock period.
The synthesis report for the FPGA gave 1221 combinational blocks from 1800 available,
and 853 sequential blocks from 1080, totaling 72% usage. A picture of the RMS is shown
in Fig. 6.

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Fig. 6. Remote monitoring system (RMS) prototype picture.

Several experimental tests were performed on the RMS, both during acquisition and
when encoding the parameter for the regression equation.

4. Experiments
The experiments were carried out in a 5600 m2 multi span greenhouse with a northsouth orientation having top and lateral ventilation and a 6 m ridge height. All data were
transmitted from the RMS to a PC in an office 150 m away to test remote capabilities.
Experiments were set up to test three different sensor output signals, in three different
field experiments for the RMS. The first experiment consisted of placing two temperature
sensors RTD PT-102 (Iomega Corporation, 2004a), each one with a TX92A (Iomega Corporation, 2004b) transmitter, and two relative humidity sensors HIH 3602 (Honeywell, 2004)
with their corresponding TUNATM RH-01 (Castaneda-Miranda and Garca-Escalante,
2000) transmitter in a radiation shield in the middle of the greenhouse. Both pairs of
transmitters were calibrated with their corresponding reference. One temperature sensor
and one relative humidity sensor were connected to the greenhouse climatic control unit
TUNATM SCCII developed in Queretaro State University; the arrangement is shown in
Fig. 7; the others were plugged in to the RMS. Data were stored by each system for 2 weeks.

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Fig. 7. The TUNATM SCCII picture.

Signal adjustment parameters were calculated and updated in the RMS before starting the
experiment.
The second experiment was made to test RMS performance for output signal frequency
sensors. A wind speed sensor (Davis Instruments, 2003) was adapted to a servomotor shaft;
the servo speed was controlled. As a first step, the sensor output signal was sensed without
any further analysis. Secondly, an adjustment with the data preprocessor was made in order
to transform the output signal from Hertz to meters per second.
Concerning the third experiment, ten cylindrical containers, each 27 cm in diameter
and 30 cm in height, were filled with 10 kg of fine texture soil. An homogeneous container filled with soil was placed at the middle height of the containers, followed by the
installation of Watermark (Irrometer Inc., 2004) sensors, all having the same orientation,
to simulate the same environment for all of them. Watermark sensors are of the GMS
type. The containers were identical, filled with soil 5 cm below the maximum height. The
soil samples were set to field capacity according to Israelsen and West (1922). Drying of
soil samples was done under greenhouse controlled conditions. Before starting the third
experiment, accurate parameters were set based on a second-degree polynomial fit between
the RMS and a Watchdog Model 200 Data Logger (Spectrum Technologies Incorporated,
2004).

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Fig. 8. One-day record of greenhouse temperature. These values were obtained with the remote monitoring system
(RMS) and the TUNATM SCCII controller.

5. Results
The results obtained from the first experiment showed that the measurement error in
sensors with 420 mA transmitters depends mostly on transmitter calibration. Adjustment
parameters are the second source of errors. Figs. 8 and 9 show 1-day data measurements of
temperature and relative air humidity with transmitters equally calibrated, respectively.
Regression analysis of the TUNATM SCCII and the remote monitoring system gave
R2 > 0.998 for both linear and second-degree polynomial fit. A maximum difference in
measurements between the TUNATM SCCII and the RMS were 0.25 C for temperature
and 0.25% for relative humidity. Relative humidity drops during the hottest hours of the
day in this type of semiarid environments, as is observed in the graph.
In the second experiment, the first part of the results revealed that the inaccuracy of
frequency measurements was 1 Hz independently of the measured frequency, but the
minimal frequency that could be measured was 1 Hz, since our intention was not aimed
at measuring fractions of Hertz. Regarding the second part, the calculated wind speed and
registered wind speed differences changed proportionally with the scale used. However, a

Fig. 9. One-day record of relative humidity. These values were obtained with the remote monitoring system (RMS)
and the TUNATM SCCII controller.

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Fig. 10. Drying soil curve. The graph shows the recorded values between the remote monitoring system (RMS)
and a commercial data logger.

regression analysis gave R2 > 0.991 in the mph scale transformation and R2 > 0.994 when
m/s scale transformation was used, both R2 s were adjusted to linear fit.
Regression analysis concerning the third experiment with a linear fit gave a determination
coefficient, R2 > 0.97 and R2 > 0.99 for a second-degree polynomial fit. These outcomes
were obtained through the comparison between RMS and data logger data. To show this
relationship graphically, values of soil water tension in centibars are plotted during a 38-h
period (Fig. 10). It can be seen from the graph that a close relation between the values
exists. The drop in soil moisture tension with time is the result of not compensating for soil
temperature in the reading data.
Concerning time-measurement capabilities, for sensors with 420 mA protocol transmitter, measurements took only 3.75 s. For GMS-type sensors, measurements took only
100 s. In regard to frequency output signal sensors, measurements were made in 1 s. With
regard to digital output signal sensors, measurements took only 250 ns.
Due to the binary nature of number representation in digital systems there is an inherent possibility of approximation error. For example, 2.13 has a binary representation of
10001000012 in a 2.8 format, with an error of 0.00109375, when using 10 bits; whereas
when 8 bits are used with a 2.6 format the representation is 100010002 with an error of
0.005. To evaluate this situation, an equation to calculate the maximum output error was
necessary. The resulting equation is
E = 2(log2 (range)8)

(1)

where range is the region between the limits within which the sensor measures; x is the
floor operand, which represents the greatest integer less or equal to x, and E is the maximum
output error. This equation is useful for users to estimate whether precision is good enough
for their specific needs.

6. Conclusions
The purpose of the current research was to develop a real-time remote monitoring system
capable of reading any kind of sensor. Low cost and reliability were the two main goals of
this design. Each unit comprising the monitoring system was tested in a CPLD before its

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implementation to the FPGA. The three experiments were designed to test the overall RMS
performance.
According to the experimental analysis, the system has an excellent performance and
good precision level. Concerning real-time capabilities, RMS takes 56 s for pre-processing
all data and 42.5 ms to transmit all data from the RMS to the PC, with a transfer speed of
9.6 kbps. This ensures that RMS can measure weather, soil and crop variables in real-time.
At 9.6 kbps it is possible to monitor 368 sensors in 1 s; this means 23 remote monitoring
systems.
This system is easy to use and connect; its installation requires a minimal electronic
knowledge, being similar to a data logger for a weather station. It is important to remark
that the use of a FPGA allows the development of a system in a short time period, with
small investment and a guarantee in the integrity of the design. The developed prototype
costs US$ 217. This prototype can read two sensors with 420 mA protocol transmitters,
two GMS-type, 10 frequency output sensors and 2 digital output sensors.
For this version of the remote monitoring system, an interruption in the communication
causes the loss of all generated data. In a further work, this disadvantage can be avoided
with the addition of a memory chip; this memory could be an EEPROM or flash memory.
Therefore, if generated data cannot be transmitted, for example due to weather conditions,
they can be stored while waiting to be downloaded. A 2 Mbyte memory is enough to store
16 sensor measurements every second for 34 h.

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