The world is buzzing with talk about this ubiquitous technology called The Internet of Things, or IoT. It is being deployed on a consumer level, enterprise level, and even on a government level. We have TVs that can be programmed remotely to record your favorite show. Your sneakers can post your latest workout to Facebook, and your robot mower has now become your full-time security guard!
When thinking of agriculture, the image that comes to mind is an industry that is frozen in time. I think of miles and miles of farm land with wheat, or lettuce, or tomatoes growing on it. I think of tractors and big, loud machines tilling the soil. I think of cows. Lots of them, with barns and feeding troughs, and… the smell! Where does technology, like IoT, fit over here?
The truth is, there are lots of opportunities for IoT technology in agriculture. Let’s start with the miles and miles of farmland. Whatever you choose to grow on your land, needs water. Furthermore, different types of produce require different amounts of water. Wheat may need a different amount of water than tomatoes or lettuce. Furthermore, if it just rained yesterday, the soil is still moist and may require less irrigation than if it didn’t just rain. How do you know how much water to use without wasting precious resources? The soil may also need different nutrients depending on what you’re growing. There may be different kinds of pests that go after different kinds of produce, which necessitates specific treatment for each type of crop that you grow. How do you know when it’s time to harvest your crops? If you’re running a business with 100 square miles of farmland, it gets kind of hard managing all those details by hand.
Besides outdoor farming, there is also an entire industry that is based on indoor farming. This is where you grow food in big warehouses! Inside this kind of farm, there are no natural seasons, days or nights. Light, humidity, and temperature are all tightly controlled. Each type of plant gets the exact wavelength of light, the right amount of water, and the exact temperature it needs to thrive. How do you ensure that produce thrives inside of a large steel warehouse with no sun, seasons, or rain? When, exactly, do you harvest the crops that grow without seasons?
This is where IoT comes in handy. There are all kinds of smart sensors that you can deploy on your farmland. There is a company that makes a solar powered sensor that measures rainfall. Then there are sensors to measures crop stress, air temperature, humidity pressure, predictive analytics of crop growth, harvest timing, and more. Another company has a comprehensive smart irrigation system. By utilizing machine-to-machine communication (also known as M2M), the rainfall measurement sensor can tell the irrigation system to output less water if it just rained! Yet, another company has a smart pest control system with smart sensors, traps, and bait stations. It proactively notifies you of any and all trouble spots with pests and gives you their exact location, so you’re not going on a proverbial wild goose (or rodent) chase. There are soil quality sensors you can deploy to measure nutrients in the soil and have them automatically release the right amount of nutrients based on the needs of the individual types of crops.
When it comes time to ship the produce to the store, conditions must be carefully managed so that you don’t deal with issues such as decay, microbial contamination, abnormal or irregular ripening, appearance issues, and loss of nutritional value. Statistics show that from the harvest point up to the retailer shelf a certain percentage of fresh produce could possibly be wasted or its quality compromised (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood). There are companies that make sensors that report on temperature and relative humidity during transit, which ensure the quality of the produce throughout the shipping process.
Another major advantage of IoT in agriculture is data analytics. A common concern in the agriculture industry is the aging of farm managers. The older generation of farmers never captured or recorded any data about the farm, it’s statistics or it’s processes. Therefore, you’re facing a situation where one guy has all the data, your entire intellectual property, in his head! Once he retires, it’s all gone! IoT devices capture and log all your data so that it’s always available. In addition to that, thanks to automation, fewer people are needed to manage the same amount of land. This brings down costs, which is then passed on to the consumer, and we all win.
This becomes even more crucial in indoor farms. The biggest challenges in indoor agriculture are delivering the right ambient climate to different types of plants. Also, the physical handling; placing and removing the plants in and out of the growing system, can be very challenging. If you’ve ever seen a picture of an indoor farm, it looks exactly like a warehouse. Picture Home Depot with shelves from floor to ceiling. Each shelf has a growing system with different plants growing on it. The underside of the shelf has a light fixture with LED grow-lights. People need to ride in a cherry picker in order to manually tend to the plants on higher shelves. IoT devices that utilize M2M communication facilitate automation which makes the whole operation manageable. The peppers get their optimal temperature, the tomatoes get the right amount of moisture, and the lettuce gets the exact amount of light needed to thrive.
One final word on IoT devices. When selecting a device for your business, there is a big difference in the way smart sensors report problems. One kind of device will notify you that your crop was damaged, for example, due to having insufficient water. This is the equivalence of locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. It’s a completely useless notification, providing zero value. Another type of device will notify you when conditions start to change. For example, it will alert you to the fact that there is a slight malfunction in the irrigation system at section 2E, with an informational message stating that if this problem is not corrected then crop damage will occur in 36 hours. A device like this is much more expensive than the aforementioned one but far more useful.
In conclusion, The Internet of Things has applications in all areas of life, from your smart watch to your smart camera. From your smart refrigerator to your smart garden. The next time you eat a fresh salad, you will have a better appreciation for the technology that contributed to its delicious taste!
My question for you is, what area of your life, have you recently discovered, has benefited from IoT?
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