The degree of mechanization in agriculture is going up rapidly. At the turn of the century, none of the 525 million farms across the world had sensor technology (or, for that matter, IoT in any other form). Cut to 2025, and we will witness more than 620 million sensors being used (considering the same benchmark of 525 million farms). The growth and proliferation of agricultural internet of things (Agro-IoT) is expected to pick up even more pace from then on – with ~2 billion smart agro-sensors expected to be in active use by 2050. Between 2017 and 2022, the agricultural IoT market is set to expand at a mighty impressive CAGR of around 16%-17%. In what follows, we will put the spotlight on the role of IoT in agriculture and analyze how smart technology is helping the sector:
Boost to precision farming
Traditionally, the agricultural sector has been fraught with risks. There are plenty of factors, ranging from rainfall forecasts and improper irrigation, to faulty planting/harvesting methods and poor soil quality, that can have adverse effects on overall productivity. Agricultural IoT offers farmers a great way to stay at an arm’s length from such uncertainties. With the help of advanced agro-sensors, users can get real-time, highly accurate data from their fields – on the basis of which key decisions (‘when to irrigate?’, ‘when to harvest’, etc.) can be taken. Round-the-clock access to all relevant information minimizes the chance of crop losses, and also helps growers make better, more well-rounded farming plans. With the growth of precision agriculture, the concepts of site-specific crop management (SSCM) and satellite farming (SF) are coming into the picture.
The role of big data in agriculture
In 2014, an average agricultural land had less than 200000 data points. By 2050, that figure will jump to 4 billion data points – a testimony of how quickly ‘connected farms’ will be growing during this period. In the realm of data-driven agriculture, it is increasingly becoming easier to track and monitor important parameters, like soil quality, plant nature and health, pest infestations, fertilizer usage, state of agricultural machinery, storage facilities, and a host of other factors. The better handling of chemical fertilizers, along with smart irrigation management, offers up environmental benefits as well. In essence, IoT in agriculture can very well be termed as a ‘necessary innovation’ – the technology has potential to boost both the quality and quantity of crop yields.
Note: According to an OnFarm report, integration of IoT can bolster yields by nearly 2%, bring down water-wastage by ~7%, and also cause significant energy savings (per acre).
Arrival of agricultural drones
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are playing an increasingly important role in smart farms. People can use these farming drones to track soil and weather conditions (like sensors, they can work in collaboration with satellites and other third-party tools), as well as create detailed 3D maps of the fields. The 3D geomapping technique is particularly useful for quickly detecting existing inefficiencies in the field, and taking corrective measures immediately. Monitoring the crop life cycle and performing a supervisory role (very important in relatively large farms, where manual supervision is difficult) feature among key functions of agricultural drones. The value of the worldwide agro-drone industry is already well over $32 billion, and the figure is expected to climb sharply over the next half a decade or so.
More efficient irrigation
Lack of proper water management has been a long-standing bane of the primary sector. As highlighted in a previous post, close to 60% of water released for agriculture gets wasted – due to overwatering, runoffs, contamination, and other related issues. What’s more, instances of crops getting damaged as a result of under/over watering is also fairly common. Once again, such problems can be effectively tackled by farmers by upgrading their fields to the IoT platform. Right from tank-filling & management and valve operations, to chalking up optimized irrigation sessions/schedules – everything can be performed via advanced Sensor Observation Service (SOS) tools. The irrigation requirements of crops are estimated carefully, along with the moisture content of the soil (also, the acid content). That, in turn, helps in efficient utilization of the limited water resources (a key factor in drought-prone locations). As per reasonable estimates, integration of smart irrigation tools can save up to 50 billion gallons of water annually.
Support for indoor farming
The growing adaptation of IoT tools and software among farmers across the globe has opened up excellent opportunities for intensive indoor farming. The overall growing area can be divided into small environments, under specific growing conditions, and an open-source platform is used for the collection and instantaneous sharing of that data. The data (which includes temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide in air, and several other critical measures) from one such environment is used to create a ‘climate recipe’ – which can then be followed for growing crops on other, similar indoor environments. Farmers have the opportunity to artificially set up conditions that would be conducive for the growth of any particular set of crops (an artificial drought, for example). Indoor farming with computers and internet services offers a high level of precision, and there hardly remains any scope for manual errors or natural elements playing spoilsport.
Note: The indoor farming methods initiated by the OpenAG Initiative uses growing environments named ‘personal food computers’.
Remote management of crops, field, equipments
It is next to impossible for farmers to manually check the health and condition of all the crops in their farm(s). Problems associated with excessive soil dryness, problematic agricultural equipments and other on-field inefficiencies can crop up too – and if these are not detected and rectified quickly, substantial loss in productivity is likely to be the result. IoT tools and smart sensors typically work as ‘middleware technology’ support, for managing all types of farm resources and connected devices on the same platform. Real-time data from the fields is relayed to a central gateway/microcontroller – and it becomes accessible to farmers through a dedicated mobile application on their smartphones. Technology enables users to keep track of what is happening on their farms on a 24×7 basis, irrespective of their precise locations at any time. Monitoring crop health or the performance of farming equipments remotely is no longer a challenge.
Smart tractors get rolling
Self-driving tractors have already started to revolutionize modern farms. These tractors (launched by companies like John Deere and Hello Tractor) are connected to the World Wide Web via built-in sensors, and can be guided by the farmers with the help of GPS navigation technology. Apart from generating crop and soil data, these high-tech tractors can help in automatic weeding and spraying of pesticides. In fact, the sensors in autonomous farm tractors can actually analyze the components in liquid nutrients, and hence, make sure that the spraying is done in the right amounts. To deliver optimal benefits, a smart tractor should be fitted with a spectrometer, a high-power infrared camera, a small computer, and a fluorescence-measurement tool for chlorophyll monitoring (in addition to, of course, the GPS receiver). Automated tractors are still comparatively new, and they are likely to become more powerful in the foreseeable future.
Note: The growing popularity of Rowbots (for nitrogen fertilizer application on corn fields) and ‘Bonirob’ (crop inventory tracking robot) serve as classic examples of the expanding usage of robotics in agriculture.
Boosts to poultry and fish farming
The positive impacts of IoT integration in farming is not limited to crop-growing only. The fish-farming industry has been identified as one of the subdomains where technology can help in a big way. Thanks to the real-time water quality, food and stock monitoring systems and the data generated by them, farmers can take smarter, better decisions. In addition, it has also become easier to detect and treat diseases. Poultry farming is yet another area of activity where smart technology is finding widespread adaptation. Treatment of wastewater and hatchery management are two of the several activities that are becoming mechanized in this sector.
Fighting pest infestations
Specialized pest control sensors are being made by OEMs, to cut down on crop damages caused by fungi and other pests. These tools typically scan and inspect agricultural fields, and identify plant growth patterns, before identifying pest-infected problem areas (if any), enabling farmers to treat them as quickly as possible. Environmental parameters are factored into the information generated and transferred by these sensors. Thanks to the advancements of IoT practices in agriculture, it is also possible to track previous records of on-field pest infestations. Chances of crop losses due to pests, and consequent heavy financial losses to the concerned farmer, are gradually becoming things of the past.
Smarter livestock management
The concept of ‘connected cows’ has generated a lot of buzz and speculation over the last few quarters. There is already an application called eCow, which can efficiently track temperature and pH levels with the help of a rumen bolus (on a daily basis). In general too, IoT has started to help farmers in managing the animals on their farms, via embedded systems that track a wide range of pertinent information (apart from the GPS location every animal), like activities, pulse rate and temperature, tissue conditions, and other critical biomedical statistics. Since live locational information becomes possible, it also becomes easier to create geofences. The feeding routine can also be automated, while users can monitor the produce regularly. Also, web-enabled livestock monitoring systems facilitates quick detection of animal diseases (and the required treatment), identification and separation of the sick animals from herds, and timely information on animals that pass away. Creating multi-featured wireless bolus with Bluetooth support that would last the entire lifespan of the animals (fitting them with sensor collars is not a viable option) is a challenge, as is ensuring the accuracy of the data generated. In big game fields, monitoring animals of endangered species (e.g., rhinos) has also been made easier than ever before by connected technology.
Note: A lot of time can be saved, if a farmer can track the position of his/her farm animals on a computer/handheld device at all times.
11. Food safety and logistics
The need for steadily increasing agricultural productivity to support the ever-growing global population has been well-documented. Till now, there have been many instances of perfectly healthy crops being harvested – only for them to get damaged and wasted due to improper storage and/or poor transportation/logistics facilities. With IoT monitoring systems, farmers can finally stamp down on such risks. These systems record the temperature, moisture and other conditions in the storage facilities, along with shipping timings, duration of travel, the overall logistics infrastructure, and the transports being used for crop transfer. All records from these systems are stored in the cloud, enabling users to access the same, as and when required.
12. Predictions, forecasting, and failure avoidance
Even with full-fledged IoT integrations, agriculture is not going to become a completely ‘fail-safe’ sector. However, technology has been instrumental in lowering all types of risks as much as possible – on different fields, and for crops of practically all types. The innovative multidevice tracking/monitoring systems help in drawing up in-depth livestock and crop analytics, and a reliable failure-prediction setup (due to unfavourable soil or weather or crop health or pests or irrigation). In smart precision agriculture, more and more farmers are switching over to IoT backed models that provide accurate weather/rainfall forecasts.
Note: IoT integration can increase the performance of both horticulture and greenhouse farming, through wireless sensors and smart applications.
The stage is all set for agricultural IoT to revolutionize farming activities, taking average performance levels up by a couple of notches. There are some temporary bottlenecks, emerging from things like the frequent lack of compatibility/interoperability between sensors from different platforms, the sheer volume of big data generated (handling them can be tricky for the average farmer) and the still-existing doubts in the minds of many farmowners. As soon as these minor hitches are ironed out, the favourable effects of IoT on agriculture will become even more evident.