The Benefits of IoT in Agriculture

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Food production and distribution are among humanity’s greatest challenges. Access to enough fresh & safe food is already problematic in less advanced parts of the world and is only going to worsen if things remain the same. The United Nations estimates that there will be close to 10 billion people on Earth by 2050. Meanwhile, the amount of arable land at our disposal will shrink due to overuse and climate change.

We’re faced with the daunting task of having to produce more food with fewer resources, so every advantage helps. The Internet of Things is already proving instrumental in optimizing food production, albeit on a limited scale. However, the future of IoT in agriculture is looking bright – a study published by BIS Research shows that the agriculture IoT market will be worth $26.8 by 2023. This means that more and more food producers are taking advantage of connected technology to boost their yields and smooth out inefficiencies in the production process.

But what is IoT, and how can it impact food production? This article examines the benefits implementing IoT into agriculture brings as well as the challenges IoT needs to overcome. It gives an overview of how IoT is making an impact on every aspect of agriculture from crops & livestock to the supply chain that delivers food to our tables. You’ll also learn about sensors and drones, the IoT tools that are the easiest to implement in agriculture. Finally, we take a look at the future of agriculture and IoT’s part in it by exploring the concepts of smart greenhouses and urban farming.

How does IoT apply to agriculture?

The internet of things, in general, refers to devices that share information over the internet and can act on one another. IoT in agriculture is a subset of the IoT space which focuses on generating data on crops and livestock, assessing their health, and implementing solutions to associated problems more efficiently than relying on human input.

The function of IoT in agriculture is to introduce a circle of monitoring, decision making, and action into the farming process. First, connected sensors take measurements on a crop or farm animal’s condition. This data is aggregated and uploaded onto a cloud platform where it is analyzed and recommendations are made based on preset parameters. The vast amounts of data are condensed into a format that can be easily interpreted by farmers or automated pieces of machinery. These then implement appropriate actions.

The most obvious result is increased efficiency. By having pertinent data at their fingertips at all time, farmers can make informed decisions on animal health or necessary crop treatments. They can predict yields and plan out associated labor or logistics costs. This is known as precision farming.

IoT is closely tied to automation, so less human input and therefore fewer workers are required. The resulting increases in yield and decreases in overhead and logistical cost make farming more profitable. And that’s not just true for large-scale farming operations either – small family farms, organic farms, or even rooftop gardens can benefit from IoT adoption.

The benefits of IoT for cultivating field crops

Knowledge is the greatest asset IoT brings to crop cultivation. By installing an array of sensors throughout his fields, a farmer has 24/7 access to information on weather patterns, soil humidity & nutrient levels, and how much light the plants are getting. This allows for optimized irrigation and fertilization costs and saves considerable sums while also ensuring that the crop is thriving.

Smart weather stations are the most popular type of IoT device used in fields today. They gather data on weather conditions throughout the year and send it to the cloud. A farmer can access not only the weather station’s current and historical data but also has all past data and future predictions for the local area at his disposal. This makes it easier to establish patterns or past trends and make better decisions on crop rotation. Mid- and short-term weather predictions also impact a farmer’s decisions on when to plant, apply fertilizer, or start harvesting. This leads to less waste and better yields while reducing the negative impact of adverse weather.

IoT is instrumental in fleet automation and optimization. By feeding info on the fields to connected vehicles, the total number of trips needed to harvest or fertilize them can be decreased. Route mapping ensures that automated vehicles take the optimum path from the field to a silo and further cut down on fuel costs.

Agricultural drones

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Sensors are vital to assessing a field’s conditions, but they aren’t a complete solution. That’s why modern farms use them in conjunction with agricultural drones. These are specialized remote-controlled vehicles that can assess the condition of a field in a more nuanced way. Agricultural drones are equipped with specialized mapping software and multispectral sensors that grant the farmer access to more advanced information like the amount of chlorophyll produced, canopy density, or plant growth.

Drones can produce detailed aerial maps of areas as small as a single field. These maps help the farmer assess whether the crops are growing evenly and quickly enough, make it easier to find problematic patches in a field that might otherwise look fine, and detect potential problems in the irrigation system.

Drones also take an active role in the farming process since they can be used for crop spraying. Both fertilizers and pesticides can be administered via drone and at a reduced cost since drones follow a pre-programmed flight path and will only spray sections of a field which need extra nutrition or protection.

While adopting the use of drones comes with high up-front costs, doing so is profitable in the long run. It is much cheaper and easier to learn how to use a drone to survey a field than to pay a licensed pilot or train to become one. Survey planes and crop dusters have high running costs and require landing strips to operate. Drones, on the other hand, need a small flat surface to land on and can be stored with other farming machinery.

Using IoT for the management and welfare of livestock

Commercial herds number in the thousands, so it is difficult to keep track of individual animals. By installing tracking connected tracking chips, a rancher can instantly locate a stray animal and return it to its herd faster. Since the rancher knows where his livestock is at all times, fewer hands are needed to find and bring back strays.

The livestock’s health is of paramount importance, which is why connected sensors that monitor an animal’s vitals are quickly catching on. These sensors assess the animal’s body temperature, heart rate, activity levels, and other factors to determine if it is in good condition. The rancher is notified when problems are detected so the sick animal can be isolated and treated. Since an illness can be identified in its early stages this way, the risk of it spreading to other animals in the herd is significantly lowered. Sensors already exist that trigger an alarm when an animal is about to give birth, ensuring that it is given proper attention in time and increasing the chances of a routine birth.

Dairy farmers are always looking for more efficient ways of improving their yields, and IoT can help with that too. Monitoring a cow’s food intake and milk yield results in data that can be used to tweak its diet and increase output. In the long-term, aggregating data on which animals produce the most amounts of milk leads to more optimized breeding and increases production even more with each new generation.

IoT in the food supply chain

Grown food should reach the consumer safely and as soon as possible. This presents a set of different challenges IoT can help with. Maintaining food quality is the most important part of the supply chain, and automated climate control ensures that food doesn’t spoil on its way to a warehouse. Smart thermostats are used to monitor the temperature of food in real-time while in transit and storage. Temperature sensors that monitor the food trigger a warning if it gets too warm, so food that’s unsafe to eat can be disposed of in time.

Introducing IoT into food logistics has a positive impact on the farmer’s relationship with the consumer. More people are starting to make conscious decisions about their eating habits, and knowing that the food in their supermarket is locally-sourced and produced with fewer pesticides, thanks to automation establishes trust and increases demand. Data gathered from sales can point to trends in the consumption of certain foods and help the farmer determine what to produce next season.

What are the challenges for IoT in agriculture?

It is clear that implementing IoT into agriculture brings numerous advantages, but some challenges need to be addressed before it becomes more widespread. The biggest difficulties IoT in agriculture is facing today are lack of information, lack of infrastructure, high adoption costs, and security concerns.

The Internet of Things is a recent concept and is known best to people who work with cutting edge technology. Most farmers aren’t even aware that IoT in agriculture is a thing. More problematic is the fact that some of them are opposed to new ideas and do not wish to adopt IoT even when its overall benefits are evident. The best that can be done to raise awareness of IoT’s impact is to demonstrate to farmers what drones, sensors, and related IoT technologies can do for them in a way that’s easy for anyone to understand and accompanied by real-world examples.

Even when they want to embrace IoT, many farmers can’t take advantage of it because of poor communication infrastructure. Farms are often in remote locations, far away from access to broadband internet. A farmer needs to be able to access crop data reliably at any time from anywhere, yet connection issues can render even the most advanced monitoring systems useless.

Acquiring the equipment needed to implement IoT in agriculture is expensive. Sensors are the least expensive component, yet outfitting all of a farmers fields with them can cost several thousand dollars. Automated machinery costs even more, and there are also costs associated with using farm management software and having cloud access to think about. While the potential for higher profits down the line is significant, many farmers may find the initial investment hurdle hard to overcome.

Lastly, there’s the matter of security. Since IoT devices interface with older equipment that has access to the internet, there’s no guarantee that someone won’t access a drone’s mapping data or sensor readouts by taking advantage of the public connection. Agricultural IoT systems gather enormous amounts of data which are hard to protect. Someone with unauthorized access to an IoT provider’s central database could steal information on projected yields and manipulate the market.

The smart greenhouse and urban farms

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Greenhouses have revolutionized the way we grow fruits & vegetables year-round. They’re labor-intensive though as operators need to monitor and balance out the delicate microclimate conditions inside continually. Introducing IoT into the greenhouse automates climate monitoring and control, cutting down on operation costs and eliminating a human’s potentially harmful or slow responses from the equation.

The sensors in a smart greenhouse measure everything from light levels and soil composition to humidity and temperature. An imbalance in any of these factors acts as the trigger for an appropriate response mechanism. For example, automatic misters can be turned on if the humidity falls below a certain percentage or a greenhouse window can be opened if the pressure inside becomes too high.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the United Nations project that the percentage will increase to two thirds by 2050. It will get increasingly more challenging to have access to fresh produce in the middle of the concrete jungle, so urban farming is going to turn from a fun hobby into a profitable and sustainable food source for millions.

There are already successful examples of large-scale urban farms in Tokyo, Singapore, London, New York, and other urban centers. Since space in such densely-populated cities is at a premium, food is grown on vertical farms. These use hydroponics and IoT-driven environmental controls to grow all manner of fruit & veg on a series of trays. Factors like temperature and humidity need to be continuously monitored, and UV lights need to be brightened and dimmed based on the time of day or access to sunlight. IoT plays a key part in keeping vertical farms running smoothly and producing fresh food for city dwellers with minimal room for human error.

Conclusion

We are on the cusp of what scientists have dubbed the third green revolution. It is already clear that IoT is going to play a pivotal role in its realization. What can we expect from agriculture in the future? More efficient resource management, less use of harmful pesticides, and food that can be traced back to its grower. In spite of shifting conditions on a global scale, IoT will finally unlock humanity’s potential to feed itself sustainably and efficiently.