IoT and the New Agricultural Revolution

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We take it for granted, but agriculture is literally central to life and has been since the dawn of civilization. It began as a supplement to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with the cultivation of ancient wild grains, fruits, and vegetables. Today, farming provides nearly all of our plant-based foods, in addition to meat, dairy, eggs, oils and biofuels, medicines, and natural fibers, like cotton. The industry is often misunderstood as old fashioned and irrelevant. However, today’s smart farming and ag-tech innovations are at the forefront of many bold innovations to help feed, clothe, and supply an ever-growing world population under the pressure of climate change. In this article we’ll look at several of the benefits of IoT and “smart farming” within the agricultural industry.

A Grave Problem and an Epic Opportunity

Population Growth and Hunger

There are 7.6 BILLION people on Earth with 9.1 billion expected by 2050. According to studies from the United Nations and other sources, to adequately feed that population, food production must increase between 25% and 70%! [ 1,2,3,4 ] Even at the 25% growth level, the challenge is immense, but that’s not all… 

We’re already experiencing a considerable food deficit. A 2019 report from the World Food Programme states that there were “821 million chronically undernourished people in the world last year, up from 811 the previous year. One in nine people in the world now faces hunger.” [ 5 ] It is feared that farms, facing the effects of climate change and land degradation, will not be able to meet this vital and staggering demand. 

Climate Change

Speaking of climate change, agriculture is both a victim and an offender here. Floods, droughts, heavy storms, sea-level rise, and climate unpredictability are just bad news for farming. It’s ironic that agriculture just so happens to be one of the leading sources of greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide. Agriculture (“Ag”) and related land use accounts for greater than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. [ 6

Excessive Waste

Massive quantities of food and agricultural waste are also pandemic. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.”[ 7 ] This does not account for other wastes such as cattle feed, manure, silage, or fertilizer leachate. 

Throughout the process, from irrigation to harvesting to processing and retailing, there is considerable room for the industry to decrease the amount of wasted output which, in turn, can reduce emissions and improve the profitability of operations. 

Agriculture’s Tech Make Over

To address these significant problems, a new Agricultural Revolution is afoot with IoT-enabled Smart Farms central to the strategy. [ 8 ] It’s a true paradigm shift when you appreciate that agriculture is at the very bottom of the list in terms of major industries which have adopted digital technology. [ 9,10 ] With ag’s massive farms and labor-constrained operations, it just seems like digitization and automation are a perfect fit.

Benefits of Agricultural IoT

According to Harriet Sumnall at ABI Research, “The reasons for adopting IoT in agriculture are universal – cost reduction, improved productivity, and better profit margins – but the specific prompts in terms of readiness to adopt can be more pragmatic and localised.”[ 11 ]

For the farm, the promise of IoT-enabled smart farms is for higher revenue and more predictable cash flow. For society, this hopefully leads to a better supply of food, with less price volatility, waste, and pollution. Here are some generalized benefits: 

  • Increased and higher-quality yields
  • Prediction of output and planned harvest, sale, and distribution (risk reduction)
  • Cost and labor management 
  • Waste reduction and management
  • Improved land-use management [ 12 ]
  • Resource management – smart irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide application
  • Detailed weather and micro-climate monitoring and prediction
  • Food traceability and supply chain logistics
  • Preventative equipment maintenance and occupational safety

IoT in Ag-Tech

Today’s availability of low-cost and effective sensors, embedded systems, low-power wireless communications, distributed power, and robotic technologies allow for increasingly economical integration at the agricultural-scale. In an industry faced with growing demand, inefficiencies, and massive challenges, it’s safe to say that this is ag’s time to get smart with IoT.

IoT is an important element in all of these agricultural-technology (“ag-tech”) areas:

  • Farm management information systems – Specialized software applications that collect, store, organize, visualize, process, analyze, and disseminate farm related data and business logic. This could be thought of as the application layer in an IoT architecture. They are frequently provided as Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms.
  • Precision agriculture – A newer farm management practice that works to optimize crop or livestock yields and profitability while minimizing environmental impact by using aerial, remote or distributed sensing to collect spatial and temporal farm data. Data is then collected and analyzed to support an intelligent and holistic Decision Support Systems (DSS). This supports anything from targeted watering, fertilizer usage, harvesting, land and waste management, and crop storage. [ 13 ]
  • Automation– Seen as crucial to the future of meeting demand, especially in labor constrained countries such as the US.
    • Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Combined with data analytics, AI helps farmers aggregate and analyze massive data sets to identify problems areas, predict yields, and optimize operations.
    • Autonomous vehicles, robotics and drones – Assists in the monitoring of crops and livestock and supports resource application. Can be especially useful in labor constrained or hazardous operations.
    • Sensors and Actuators – These IoT edge nodes are crucial for the real-time collection of crop data and the automated metering and application of resources such as feed or irrigation.
    • Embedded Networking and Edge Processing – Allows for the connection of edge sensors and actuators to an integrated IoT architecture. Edge Processing allows for certain data to be analyzed in situ to reduce latency and processing from the cloud.
    • Wireless Communications – Smart farming is dependent on numerous distributed IoT edge nodes. Low power, low-cost wireless technologies like Lora, SigFox, and 5G make this feasible.
    • Cloud Computing – Serves to aggregate the “big data” produced by agricultural edge sensors and 3rd party data sources such as weather service data or dam flow rates. Applications are often written that process, analyze, visualize, optimize and automate farm operations.

Some of the Downsides to IoT Ag-Tech

No Silver Bullet

It’s not as simple as it sounds, really. Farming is on a global scale, driven by thousands of years of interpersonal, geographic, political, cultural and regional influences. These differences mean that there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all Smart Farm or IoT solution. Thankfully, IoT is extremely flexible and scalable, thus making it well suited to the challenge of agricultural diversity.

Data Privacy and Ownership

As with just about anything in IoT, data privacy and security is an issue. In farming, a major concern is with the unauthorized sharing of a farmers’ crop data in a way that violates their privacy or uses the data for profit without express permission. As with many industries, this is a growing concern. Best practices on how to deal with it are continuously evolving and are subject to location specific regulations. [ 14 ] Furthermore, since farm production is very much tied to financial markets and national security, it is wise to encrypt and secure the smart farm from surveillance and sabotage.

Applications

Due to the global scale and diversity in farming practices, it’s fair to say that there are too many applications to cover. We’ll address some of the general application areas and then provide a few specific use cases.

Cattle Monitoring and Automation

According to Dairy Global, “By 2024, over 2 million farms and 36 million cattle will be connected.  For livestock, it is about collecting data relating to the health of the animals, including birthing activities, as well as knowledge of their whereabouts.” [ 15 ]  The desire to optimize mating and feeding is also in demand within the industry. 

Precision milking is one of the subsets of smart dairy farming that attempts to optimize daily milking routines. Waste management (e.g., manure collection and distribution) is another area that can be improved with IoT. Many of these capabilities are supported by IoT, global positioning systems (GPS), radio-frequency identification (RFID), image recognition, cloud computing, and automated feeding systems.

  • Afimilk and Allflex (an Antellieq company) each provide farms with an integrated IoT Cloud architecture, hardware and SaaS management information system to monitor and optimize livestock feeding, health and breeding.
  • NoFence uses smart animal collars to enable geofencing. The collars provide a mild electrical “stimulus” that promotes the animal to stay within the desired pasture. The tool helps manage overgrazing. When combined with other IoT and geographic information systems (GIS), it can also support improved productivity, land management, and regenerative agriculture.
  • Lely provides robotic cattle feeding and milking equipment that can be integrated with a smart farm management information system.
Dairy cattle are feed using a Lely feeding robot, which can be integrated with IoT. Photo credit: maxpixel.net

Livestock with RFID tag can be tracked through an smart farming, IoT architecture. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Crop Monitoring and Automation

Crops can run the gamut from food crops, animal feed, biofuels, and industrial lubricants to those growing fibers like cotton. There are several drivers for the introduction of connectivity and the IoT to better monitor and manage croplands. IoT allows for precision farming by measuring localized soil conditions and nutrient levels, pH, moisture, localized microclimates, weather, and many other useful indicators of crop health. 

This detailed IoT-sensor data can then be used to better time cropland preparation, planting and harvesting. Precision agriculture can be used to apply resources, such as  irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, more sparingly and to the specific areas that require resources in real-time. IoT goes even further by improving the efficiency around crop storage, distribution, and waste management. Here are a few examples of innovations in this area:

  • FarmMobile provides a software platform for farmers to aggregate and analyze IoT data to inform more productive, precise and sustainable farming.
  • American Robotics and SkyCision are two companies that offer IoT-drone platforms to monitor and optimize operations and crop planning.  Drones are commonly used to map crops and detect areas undergoing crop stress. Edge computing and AI enhances the detection capabilities.
  • Skyx and DJI make precision pesticide-spraying drones that are deployed to the precise crop areas that require chemical application. This reduces the need for crop-wide chemical applications. 
  • Sensoterra and Smartfield are two companies that make smart farming sensors to measure anything from soil moisture to crop canopy temperature.
Using IoT, resources such as water can be targeted to areas that need it most. Photo credit: Jose Gonzalez

DJI Agriculture Plant Protection Drone UAV can be integrated into a smart farm IoT architecture. Photo credit: Maxpixel.net

Forestry Monitoring

Forests may not be edible, but many forests around the world are planted and managed for lumber or paper production. In essence, many forests are wood farms. They also provide a valuable medium-term sink for carbon dioxide. 

As we showed in one of our more recent blog posts, drones with hyper-spectral imaging are becoming more common in monitoring these natural assets Distributed sensors are used to monitor weather, soil conditions, water, and other indicators of forest health. The data can be used to measure growth rates and to predict yields, future cut dates, and to optimize plantings.

Aquaculture Monitoring

Agriculture is not just for the land-lovers. The aquaculture industry is an interesting sector within the ag industry. On-shore and off-shore production of fish has become big business. These seafood farms have many challenges and can benefit from reducing waste and improving efficiency. IoT is being used to monitor water conditions like temperature, pH, and ammonia to provide healthier growing conditions and more efficient harvesting times.

  • The Yield is an IoT Ag-Tech company that began with work in aquaculture farming to improve the yield and quality in the oyster farming industry. By using IoT to measure microclimates, weather systems, salinity, water temperature, and other environmental conditions, the seeding and harvesting of oyster beds was optimized. Since then, the company has expanded into all types of agriculture.
Photo credit: Wikimedia

Smart Greenhouses and Vertical Farming

Greenhouses are a technology that have been around for a while, but the latest generation is something out of utopian fiction. These smart greenhouses provide automated watering, temperature control, lighting, feeding, air circulation, pesticide application, and even robotic harvesting.

Innovations in hydroponic and aeroponic irrigation with specialized LED lighting now permit vertically stacked, highly intensified indoor farms that grow in the absence of all sunlight. The industry fits a niche by growing produce in urban centers or in geographies that have short growing seasons. The benefit is that high-quality food can be produced year-round, under less than ideal growing conditions, and with hungry consumers only miles away. Resources and growing conditions can also be strictly monitored and regulated.

  • Aerofarms – One of the leaders in the field of indoor smart vertical farming and aeroponics. The company claims their approach uses “95% less water than field farming and 40% less than hydroponics”, and that seed can grow “in half the time as a traditional field farmer, leading to 390 times more productivity per square foot than a commercial field farm.”  [ 16 ]
  • Researchers at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, in coordination with local Dutch agtech startup and experimental farms are considered leaders in smart farming, sustainable indoor and vertical farms, and precision agriculture.[ 17 ]
Photo credit: USDS

Food Packaging and Supply Chain Logistics

After the farmers pull in the harvest, there is still a lot of work that goes into processing, packaging, and delivering produce to your local stores. Depending on where you live and from where your food comes, we may well be talking about logistics over a global scale. It doesn’t get easier when you add the need to deliver fresh, safe to eat, marketable products to the right location at the right times. You can see how this portion of the supply chain is particularly prone to food waste and inefficiencies.

IoT, in conjunction with management information systems and decision support systems, can help distributors to operate and manage inventory more efficiently while better supporting compliance with trade and food safety regulations. For example, smart packaging technologies, such as RFID location, temperature and time measurement sensors, are being used to not only track produce through the supply chain but also to guarantee freshness, appropriate transport conditions, and traceability. [ 18 ]

Preventative Maintenance and Safety

If you’ve been reading our series on IoT in Industry, preventative maintenance may be the most universal benefit across the verticals. By reading sensors installed on assets over time, IoT enables the maintenance and repair of costly machinery and equipment before failure. It allows farmers to plan for maintenance when it’s least disruptive and prevents equipment-related issues from arising during production, harvesting, or whenever it is needed most. Not only does this prevent more catastrophic failures and accidents, but it also mitigates equipment related risks associated with farm output and sustainability.

Beekeeping

This application caught our eye, and with all the buzz on colony collapse disorder as of late, it seemed poignant. The honey farming industry is vital not only for the sweet stuff we all love but also as a way of pollinating other important crops. IoT is “beeing” used to help beekeepers mind the health of their hives and brood and to monitor honey production.

  • Broodminder provides a low cost IoT hive monitoring solution. It tracks hive temperature and hive weight to help beekeepers understand the health and output of their bees better. [ 19 ]

Farm On!

Agriculture is one of the most decisive innovations of human civilization. It is always being remade and improved upon to feed our future. Today’s innovations, including IoT in the smart farm, are an exciting and timely adaptation with much promise. We hope you enjoyed this spotlight on IoT in Agriculture. Please comment or contact us if you have questions, comments or suggestions.

Check out all of the articles in our IoT Industry Spotlight series!

Cover photo credits: John Fielding – Crop Circles near Hedenham https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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