How the Internet of Things Helps Grow our Food

Farming has been called the most important ingredient in human civilization. Since around 8,500 BC, people have been poking seeds into dirt and letting the sun and rain help grow food.

After primarily hunting and gathering for food, early people began farming when prey became scarce. Farming began in the Fertile Crescent area – today’s Middle East – and people grew wheat, barley, peas and lentils instead of gathering them in the wild. By about 4,000 BC Europeans were using oxen to pull plows and wagons to aid their farming efforts. Technological advances were later made with rudimentary sowing and reaping machines, and in the 20th century farming became mechanized. So, what’s next in terms of technological advances for agriculture?

Precision Agriculture

One of today’s biggest trends in farming is precision agriculture, which enables farmers to harness the Internet of Things (IoT) and deploy wireless sensors and weather stations to gather real-time data. This lets them respond to variable soil, moisture, and weather conditions across different plots of land. The benefits of precision farming include higher crop yields, reducing the risk of crop failure, minimizing operating costs, and selling crops for the highest price possible.

With precision agriculture, farmers work smarter not harder. The precision part means they can manage large fields as if they are a group of small fields, monitoring soil at closer intervals, and tailoring the growing conditions to each small area for best results. Or, in other words, they extract as much value from each seed as possible.

The World Economic Forum IIoT report agrees that precision agriculture leads the evolution to outcome-based services. When farm equipment is connected to geo-location data, farmers can coordinate and optimize farm production in new ways. For example, automated tillers can inject nitrogen fertilizer at precise depths and intervals, as seeders follow, placing corn seeds directly in the fertilized soil.

Of course, many companies are trying to provide agricultural solutions and IoT-connected devices and platforms. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 60 percent of U.S. agricultural input dealers offer some kind of variable-rate-technology services. However, less than 20 percent of acreage is managed using these technologies due to the high cost. Ideally, as the benefits of precision agriculture become more well-known, the use of the technology will become more widespread, and the costs will decrease.

Here are three ways in which the IoT is aiding the business of agriculture for better results:

Sensors Measure Soil Moisture

At John Deere, the company uses an application called Field Connect that leverages satellite data for farming applications. The system uses sensors to monitor moisture levels and feeds the data to a web-based interface to help farmers make timely irrigation decisions.

Data is instantly available to view the soil’s moisture level and make the best business decisions about any measures that need to be taken. Studies indicate that 80 percent of food producers overwater their crops, which can reduce growth and yield and increase the chance of soil fungal disease. By connecting the data to the farmer, this issue can be eliminated and water is conserved. The data can also show when there is not enough moisture and irrigation is needed to maximize crop growth.

Drones Monitor Crop Height

A specific type of drone used in agriculture – known as a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) – is flexible enough to detect pests, plant diseases, weeds, irrigation efficiency, and soil erosion.

Raymond Hunt of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently presented his research in agricultural mapping using sUAS systems to image crop conditions and damage.  Of particular interest is the topic of 3D mapping which is used to determine plant height, an indicator of plant health. Plant height indicates how fast a plant is growing, and stunted growth can be an indicator of stress.

When mapped out by a sUAS, specific fertilization can be applied (also by a drone) depending on the nitrogen requirement of the crops. Yield monitors – which are now standard on farm equipment – map out areas of high and low yield. Farmers then know that the high yield areas will require more fertilization the next year, which can be applied over a field based on GPS and GIS (Geographic Information System) data.

The benefit of drones is that they can gather high resolution images and are becoming a cost-effective solution, although there are still strict regulations on where they can be used and how high they can fly.

Predictive Weather Analytics Enable Better Decisions

The Deep Thunder Project is helping to maximize agricultural resources in a sustainable manner. Since 70 percent of fresh water worldwide is used for agriculture, better management of how it’s used will have a huge impact on the world’s fresh water supply.

Since most of agriculture is directly driven by weather, predicting future weather conditions can help farmers make proactive decisions. For instance, they can apply irrigation only when it is needed and not waste water if it’s going to rain.

Also, if farmers know they’ll have heavy rain the next day, they may decide not to apply fertilizer or pesticides since they would get washed away and the runoff can negatively impact the environment.

The Market for Precision Agriculture

According to the Accenture Digital Agriculture: Improving Profitability report, the total market size for digital precision agriculture services is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.2% between 2014 and 2020, to reach $4.55 billion. Greater use of precision agriculture services can help to improve a farm’s financial performance, but will also assist in meeting the food needs of an expanding population.

By 2050 the global population is expected to jump by over a third to 9 billion people. To keep pace with this population growth, food production needs to increase by at least 70 percent according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As we look ahead, there are many areas for the transformation of agriculture through technology that can help the world to meet these needs.

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