Smart farming: IoT applied to agriculture

Many technological advances and efforts have been made in the area of precision agriculture and solutions are now available to companies and farmers to get the most out of a farm. However, a world of new possibilities is now opening up for the sector. The opportunity has arisen to connect all these solutions to the internet. The emergence of new sensors and actuators and cheaper access to new technologies are helping to equip all these devices and tools with the ability to connect to the network.

The benefits offered to the farmer by different technologies, such as GPS systems and sensors, are multiplied thanks to communication via the internet. This connectivity, on the one hand, allows the technologies involved to work with a backend of information that improves decision-making in real-time. On the other hand, it makes it possible to make them communicate with each other and work as a single integrated system, feeding back into each other. In other words, thanks to the advent of the IoT (Internet of Things), precision farming technologies have become smarter.

What is the Internet of Things?

As we have covered in past articles, the IoT is a concept based on the interconnection of a product with any other product around it. From a book to the fridge in your own home. The aim is to make all these devices communicate with each other and, consequently, become more intelligent and independent. Its significance could be brutal in both economic and social spheres. Even greater than the digital age. The Internet of Things allows computers to interact with elements of real life and gain independence from human beings, leaving us in charge of what is really important.

 

As a result, human intervention in agricultural processes is becoming less and less necessary. The machines and technologies involved are more autonomous than ever and capable of making decisions in a matter of seconds and with a precision that was previously unthinkable.

The possibility of collecting, storing and processing in real time all this data from so many different sources and automatically cross-referencing it with much other information related to the prices of raw materials, market developments or weather forecasts, makes the IoT essential for the future of this sector.

This is why precision farming presents a goldmine of opportunities for IoT innovation and M2M (Machine to Machine) communications.

Traditionally, farmers have relied on their intuition and experience to carry out various tasks in the field according to a predefined schedule. Today, the vast amount of information, accuracy and immediacy of data from M2M connections allow them to anticipate the future and make the best decisions at every moment of the crop, always based on accurate, real and up-to-date data.

A more scientific agriculture has arrived, smart agriculture has arrived.

Far from being an idea of the future, the application of precision farming techniques is slowly becoming more common and with them the use of IoT as a necessary tool in the optimisation of any of its processes.

The promise of delivering 24/7 monitoring of soil and crop health, machinery in use, storage conditions, energy consumption levels and more is very attractive to the farmer.

There are many fields of action within agriculture where the use of these new tools is being decisive. The benefits in the near future could be innumerable, but already today we are seeing great contributions, mainly reflected in…

  • Increased productivity and profitability

Today, it is more important than ever to maximise profitability and return on resources. New tools, in addition to the automation of everyday processes and machinery, are making it possible to collect, monitor and analyse data in real time, allowing us to make smarter decisions, day by day and season by season, to get the best results. This is leading to improved production by providing information on what type of crop is most profitable to plant, on what exact date and on what exact soil, or what exact amount of water and fertiliser that crop will require.

In addition, the level of forecasting and execution accuracy offered by these technologies is also a factor affecting crop productivity. The higher the level of forecasting accuracy or behaviour, the higher the chances of getting the most out of a farm.

  • Better conservation of resources

Water scarcity has historically been a challenge to solve, requiring extensive technical knowledge and mastery of data on complex cropping and irrigation systems.

With the advent of IoT technology and its combination with soil monitoring systems, farmers can measure moisture, detect leaks and more efficiently manage water use in each application, all in real time. Or in other words, intelligently manage a limited water supply with less waste of water resources.

Studies indicate that the widespread use of new tools and IoT in agriculture could conserve 200 billion litres of freshwater globally per year.

  • Lower pollutant emissions

While modern farming practices are increasing crop yields in recent years, the overall impact of agriculture on the environment remains hugely negative. To highlight one fact, about 50% of the world’s habitable land has been converted to cropland, and another 120 million hectares are expected to be converted by 2050.

On the other hand, unsustainable agricultural practices are seeing 12 million hectares of land lost to desertification every year. In many countries, agriculture is the main source of pollution. Globally, agricultural practices are estimated to account for about 24% of all direct greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to reducing the use of pesticides and better water management, new technological solutions are proving useful in monitoring air quality in real time and can detect abnormal levels of various gases such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc. This allows corrective countermeasures to be taken before major damage can be caused.

It is estimated that M2M solutions can save up to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2020. The impact varies according to the type of applications; livestock management (700 million tonnes), soil monitoring and weather forecasting (620 million tonnes), precision agriculture (250 million tonnes) and improving water efficiency (30 million tonnes).

  • Better control of disasters and pests

Diseases, pests and weather conditions themselves make agriculture a very high-risk business. Every year there are cases where crops are totally lost due to drought, snowfall or torrential rains. By collecting data and using predictive analytics, farmers can anticipate the future by making timely decisions to at least reduce the impact of potential catastrophes.

On the other hand, sensors and cameras connected to the internet already allow farmers to better monitor and control pest populations. This is the case with some installed wireless sensor networks that monitor pest counts, and when they detect that the pest population is too high, they automatically activate a pheromone release system that alters pest mating patterns.

Techniques such as these are minimising, and in some cases completely replacing, the use of pesticides. With public opinion pushing for more natural foods and less pesticide use, farmers are increasingly looking to reduce or even eliminate the use of these products.

  • Greater process safety

Smart farming is also having its benefits at different levels in the area of food health and preservation such as storage, transport, etc….

Various sensors and tracking tools are now being used to monitor and control factors such as shipping time, storage temperature, etc. to ensure food safety and quality at all stages of the agricultural process.

Right from the production stage, M2M solutions are helping farmers to obtain accurate information on the health of both crops and animals that might otherwise be difficult to track and analyse. Thanks, for example, to the deployment of monitoring tags on livestock, farmers can detect diseases in their animals almost instantly. This makes it possible to remove the affected animal before the disease spreads, thus preventing, in addition to possible losses, any spoiled product from reaching the market.

  • Smarter logistics

More than 40% of all food produced worldwide is lost each year, and more than 20% of this is due to transport and storage-related waste. These losses can occur at various points in the agricultural supply chain, whether due to transport delays, inadequate storage, or during many other stages from production to distribution. In fact, wastage is arguably a bigger problem for the sector than low productivity, as it indicates a waste of all the time and resources invested in the early stages of production.

The use of IoT and M2M communication to monitor and track the transport of agricultural products across fleets, freighters and fishing boats offers effective solutions to this problem. An analysis by PwC has estimated that M2M fleet management solutions can reduce food waste by 10-15% per year, equivalent to feeding the entire population of Kenya.

  • Better business management

But the agriculture of the future will not only be one that can improve production levels with the least possible use of land, water, fertilisers and labour, it will also have to optimise crop margins.

The high price volatility in this sector is one of the biggest nightmares for farmers, because the swings that occur are so sharp and sudden: in just two months, the international price of rice has doubled. Thanks to IoT and big data technologies, farmers can now anticipate major variations in the price of certain products through the use of mathematical models, and receive real-time recommendations to buy and sell at the best possible price at any given moment.

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