February 29, 2016
PALLAI, SRI LANKA ─ He’d been growing mushrooms in his shed since 2010, but Kanagaratnam Thayananthan was still stumped about how to save his crop from succumbing to humidity fluctuations.
Mushroom cultivation is ideally done with minimal human interaction, because mushrooms are easily contaminated through human contact, Kanagaratnam says in a phone interview. But to control the heat and moisture, he or a hired worker would regularly spray water or turn on cooling fans in the mushroom shed near his home in Pallai, in the Jaffna district, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
But in July, he installed an invention, created by two young Sri Lankan engineers, that automatically controls temperature and humidity. With the Enterprise/Environment Monitoring System (EMS), Kanagaratnam’s mushrooms now get first-class treatment with automatic cooling fans and sprinklers. Kanagaratnam can manage the system remotely, and he gets text messages when temperature and humidity variations occur.
“We had to spray water thrice a day, consuming three to four hours, but now with technology we only spend 120 seconds,” Kanagaratnam says.
And these days, Kanagaratnam can compete as a mushroom producer.
“Earlier, we couldn’t even produce 200 grams (7 ounces) of mushrooms, but now with the EMS installed and tighter controls in place, we get around 10 kilograms (22 pounds) for a day,” he says.
The system that overhauled Kanagaratnam’s mushroom farm was designed by a pair of college students. Tharmakulasingham Jeyjenthan and John Nirajh Anton Crises, both 25, invented the EMS while studying electronic engineering at the University of Moratuwa. It is based on a similar product available abroad, but nothing like it was accessible in Sri Lanka.
The invention was born of personal knowledge of farming challenges. Both inventors grew up in Nelliady, a small agricultural village in Jaffna district. They came to the Colombo district for their university studies in 2010. They were keen to create technology that would aid farmers, and in 2013 invented an automated irrigation system with help from volunteers at Yarl IT Hub, a community that supports IT-related innovation and development.
The irrigation system uses Internet of Things technology, through which physical objects communicate with one another via embedded, connective software and other mechanisms.
Inspired by that success and spurred by hearing about farmers’ needs in meetings with them and at agricultural warehouses, Tharmakulasingham and Anton Crises ─ in their spare time ─ built the EMS.
The EMS is a small device, about 11 by 7 centimeters. Sensors attached to it are connected to the cloud, and real-time information is updated every 30 minutes. Alerts can be obtained via online or text messages, providing control to the user even from a distant location.
The sensors measure environmental conditions that include temperature, humidity, luminosity, noise and motion, Anton Crises says.
The system is a potential game changer for Sri Lanka, where more than a quarter of the employed population ─ 28.5 percent ─ works in agriculture, according to the Sri Lanka Labor Force Survey Annual Report 2014, published by the Department of Census and Statistics. About 2.2 million people, 89.7 percent of all agricultural workers, are employed informally. About 64 percent of all people who hold secondary jobs work those jobs in the agricultural sector.
There are about 90,400 farmers in the Jaffna district alone, each growing crops in an area less than 11,000 square feet, according to the Economic Census 2013/2014 of the Department of Census and Statistics.
The EMS is priced based on each client’s requirements. Some farmers can get it for as low as $100 per year, Tharmakulasingham and Anton Crises say.
The two have set up five EMS units for three agricultural clients in the Northern Province, and they have received inquiries from large-scale food producers and distributors in Colombo that want the EMS adapted to controlling temperature of their produce and other food items during transport.
Now, they’re also working on the Oceanographic Monitoring System, a wireless sensor network that is planned to monitor ocean temperatures in 12 marine sites around Sri Lanka, Anton Crises says.
The network gathers real-time data about ocean temperature variations, which researchers will use to take immediate protective measures or plan solutions to protect the coral reef ecosystems, Tharmakulasingham says.
That system was initially developed by a group of undergraduate students at the University of Moratuwa, says Dileeka Dias, dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at the school and a supervisor of the project. It then became a joint activity with the University of Ruhuna and was launched as a project in May 2015, with corporate sponsorship.
Anton Crises and Tharmakulasingham were tasked with taking the project from a testing phase to a deployable phase, Dias says.
The pair have been close friends since they met in secondary school at Hartley College in Point Pedro, about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Jaffna city. They say they’ve been inseparable since then. To create the EMS, Anton Crises focused on software development and server operations, while Tharmakulasingham designed the hardware and wrote the programming code. They have not applied for a patent for their innovation because they can’t afford the costs involved.
Anton Crises and Tharmakulasingham graduated from the University of Moratuwa in April 2015, and that same month they registered their company, SenzMate (Pvt.) Ltd., which they operate out of Tharmakulasingham’s home in Colombo.
Thusyanthan Arulsodhy is a volunteer at Yarl IT Hub and has worked closely with Anton Crises and Tharmakulasingham. The EMS is unique in its field, he says.
“This is a new innovation in Sri Lanka,” he says. “John and Jeyjenthan adapted the existing technology to suit the needs.”
In the future, the EMS could be used by supermarkets, food-processing units and other facilities, Tharmakulasingham says.
It could also be adapted to track movement. Parking facilities could benefit from the system if open slots were tracked, and nursing homes could monitor the locations of their patients or residents.
Anton Crises says he and his partner intend to keep experimenting.
“Someone has to take the lead,” he says. “That would encourage others to try without fear of failing,” he says.
Mithula Guganeshan, GPJ, translated three interviews from Tamil.
In the Tamil community, a man’s personal name comes after his father’s name and serves as his principal identity. GPJ has maintained this style for this article.