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Farmer builds system to remotely control pivots where there is no cell phone service

COLDWATER - A self-described technology nerd, Milo Call designed and built a remote control system for farm irrigation that does not require cell phone service and monthly charges.

“It works anywhere, whether there is or isn’t cell service,” said the southeastern Idaho farmer.

He remotely controls his irrigation pivots using ultra high frequency (UHF) radios that transmit to his fields. He raises potatoes, sugar beets and grain on 1,300 acres in the Cold Water area west of American Falls.

“I haven’t found a system like mine – a centralized computer system that does away with the need for a computer panel at each pivot and can be remotely accessed from my phone,” said Call, who named it RemoteAg.

Radius range of the system is 40 miles from the base station.

“If anything has electricity and a switch, I can control it remotely using my cell phone to communicate with the computer in my shop,” he said. “This system is designed by a farmer to think like a farmer and do what a farmer wants it to do. It’s putting the power of running my farm into the palm of my hand.”

Several years ago, Call thought of buying a popular program that uses an app and his smart phone to control his 22 pivots remotely.

“I decided not to because I didn’t like the cost of paying for new panels on each pivot and the ongoing cell phone service charges to run them,” he said.

Instead, he began doing research on the internet.

“I like a challenge, especially involving technology,” said Call, who is also a HAM radio operator and part of a local emergency preparedness network. “Anytime you tell a farmer something can’t be done, he’ll say, ‘Watch me.’”

After writing software for two years in his spare time and building a control box, he installed two prototypes on two pivots in 2016. Now the farm is fully operational with the system.

He still remembers running it for the first time.

“I couldn’t stop giggling because it worked so well,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I did it.’ Everything I needed, I found on the internet. I designed and assembled the components to work together with the software I wrote.”

The components of a RemoteAg control box include a radio antenna, global positioning system to identify a pivot’s location, and a command board that uses a timer and series of relay switches.

To control it, he found a programmer in Florida who had written automation software.

“I bought the program and customized it by writing a series of logic conditional and script statements to control tasks such as variable rate irrigation, end-gun control, or to turn it off and on,” he said. “The system will text me for pivot events such as ‘Stop in the Slot’ reaching a stop, or if a pivot shuts off unexpectedly. 

“It automates partial pivots, allowing the operator to preprogram a pivot’s program and have it operate automatically, turning water on and off, speeding up or slowing down the pivot in a feature I call ‘Aurocircle,’” Call said. “It enables unattended operation just as though it were a full-circle pivot.” 

In his shop adjacent to his home overlooking the Snake River, Call clicks through screens on his computer monitor to see what is happening in each field – how much it has been watered or whether a pivot is stuck or not working.

“A unique feature is that the system incorporates a map page that displays all of the locations of pivots in real time,” he said.

With the last 15 minutes of daylight, he can pull up the program on his phone and know what needs to be done.

“It would be interesting to see what it would do in the marketplace, but I’m not sure I have the time for that,”

Call said.