IoT: Making farming more efficient
Written by: Mark Venables | Published:

The pressure is on farmers to produce more food, quicker. But when it comes to adopting smart farming technology what is the best approach? Mark Venables investigates

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) by 2050 the world’s population will exceed nine billion, so to meet increased demand agricultural production will need to grow by 60 per cent.

Agricultural productivity is rising across the world, but often not quickly enough. Food security remains a serious issue in many countries and the FAO has estimated there are 805 million chronically hungry people in the world.

All of this is set against a backdrop of slowing productivity growth, limited availability of arable land, climate change, the increasing need for fresh water, and the impact of urbanisation. To counter these challenges the FAO recommends that all farming sectors are equipped with innovative tools and techniques, particularly digital technologies.

“There is an increasing consensus on how important the Internet of Things [IoT] is to transform the agriculture sector,” Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research, explains. “Within this there is an extensive set of applications that touch different parts of agriculture.”

As for adoption, Romeo explains that some areas of farming and some regions are more receptive than others. “It is definitely getting a lot of attention from governments and investment from large companies,” he says. “It is not widely adopted so there is a lot of work still to do and there are a number of reasons it is not widely adopted and a number of initiatives that can help in increasing adoption.”

Allaying farmers’ fears about smart farming is only half the battle though. The other major roadblock is the poor quality and patchy coverage of rural wireless and broadband. “The connectivity aspect is a problem, but low-power wide-area networks [LPWAN] will be really beneficial for this,” Romeo explains. “There are areas in developed regions where you do not even have 2G. Historically, where there was no connectivity the solution was satellite, but this is expensive – although it is now coming down in cost and the satellite communications industry is very interested in agriculture.

“LPWAN will really be a boost to farming,” he continues. “The idea is to have a LPWAN that can reach up to a 50-kilometre radius for applications that require low data rate exchange, devices that require long battery life, and at a low cost. Sigfox is one of the providers leading in this area. It has a number of applications using its Sigfox network in precision livestock and irrigation systems. The data sets that need to be exchanged are low… To locate a cow a location message will be in the order of 15Kb. Even if you want to add a couple of sensor readings that is okay.

“The alternative in the non-licensed spectrum is the LoRa alliance. Pretty soon this type of technology will allow the deployment of more applications in agriculture. The industry is creating a low data network that can be quite lucrative.”

Romeo adds that for smart farming a mixture of communications technology is required.

“You can have a LPWAN in a medium-size field and you can also use satellite when you need to send data to the farm management system,” he says. “You can have a short-range wireless network in the vineyards gathering information from the vines and then you can have a gateway that connects to the farm management system by satellite.”

View from the farm
So what does smart farming mean to farmers? At its core it is all about gathering data via sensors connected to the internet and analysing it to make more informed decisions on various aspects of farming.

The EU is supporting several initiatives to develop smart farming technologies for farmers and earlier this year hosted a summit for European farmers in Brussels.

One farmer who spoke at the event was Kieran Sullivan, who farms in County Waterford in Ireland. He spoke about how the internet pervades our everyday lives so why should work life be any different? “We socialise on it, read our newspapers on it, and order our food on it – to name but a few uses,” he says. “Farming is no different and while we can’t grow food in it, the connected world of the internet is becoming a useful tool in the farmyard.

“There is a need for farmers to feel the benefits of smart technology offerings. Often we’re the last ones considered when a new technology is being developed,” Sullivan adds. “Some things of interest to me are how technology could help farmers with compliance issues. Could smart monitoring, for example, help farmers show that they are complying with the nitrates directive?

“The internet is here to stay and it offers farmers much potential to better manage their costs and their produce. Now we just need to start talking about broadband coverage in rural areas [see Vaughan O’Grady’s article on this topic in last month’s issue – Ed] – perhaps this is something to bring up when politicians start knocking on our doors looking for votes.”

Precision farming saves money
Historically the use of telecoms technology in agriculture was based around precision farming. Farm vehicles using GPS, which has evolved into connected agriculture vehicles that are semi-autonomous.

This kind of technology is primarily used on large farms with large fields, which is why semi-autonomous agricultural vehicles are more common in countries such as the United States and Australia where farms tend to be larger.

Precision farming has very much come of age as a mainstream agricultural practice. John Deere’s Agricultural Management Solutions (AMS) division started in 2001 with the first generation GreenStar display and StarFire satellite receiver, along with the company’s yield mapping and parallel tracking system, and is now one of the market leading system suppliers in Europe.

“People love to talk about automation in vehicles, but automation is already a daily practice for us,” Christoph Wigger, vice president of sales and marketing at John Deere explains. “When you drive a tractor towing an implement through a field you can never guide it so precisely that you don’t overlap on each pass. For example, when you are seeding you want to seed very precisely, but that is hard when you are towing an implement behind you that can be anywhere between 12 and 20 metres wide. A GPS device will allow you to do very precise side by side seeding and tillage. That’s a proven number in the field, you save 10 per cent of your costs and that’s a huge saving you have enabled through guidance, so it’s very much about efficiency gains.”

John Deere is the only agricultural equipment manufacturer that develops and manufactures its high-tech components in-house, such as the StarFire receivers, controllers, and GreenStar displays for guidance systems. The company can therefore offer fully integrated guidance and telematics solutions, with access to all other machine components. Another John Deere exclusive is its StarFire satellite signal correction network, which provides receiver customers with a choice of accuracy levels depending on their requirements.

Precision farming technology is currently being used in four main areas: general guidance and machine control; application control, such as on sprayers and fertiliser spreaders; mapping, documenting and measuring agronomic practices; and managing in-field variables such as soil type, nutrients and pH.

Guidance technologies are designed to increase the driving accuracy of tractors, combine harvesters, self-propelled foragers and sprayer operators in the field. Overlap between successive passes is reduced, productivity and machine efficiency is increased, and input costs (including fuel use, fertilisers, crop protection products and labour costs) are reduced by 10 to 15 per cent.

Other important benefits and advantages include reductions in operator fatigue and less wear and tear on equipment. Automatic guidance alone, using John Deere’s established AutoTrac steering system, can typically achieve savings of between £5000 and £10,000 a year on a 500 hectare arable farm.

Small scale farming
When we look at horticulture – such as strawberry fields or vineyards – the technology driving the IoT revolution here is sensors. “Because of their low cost you can create a mesh network of sensors in the soil or on plants that collect data, which is sent through a gateway to a farm information management system from which you can take all the action necessary,” Romeo explains. “The cost of the technology is reducing while the quality and accuracy of it is improving.”

Another area where the IoT can benefit agriculture is precision livestock (monitoring the location and/or health of animals), which according to Romeo has been happening more and more over the past few years.

“There are a number of applications under this umbrella,” he says. “You can simply monitor the position of the animal in the field with a tag on its ear connected to a hub. But you can evolve this application to monitor its health, for example to understand when is the impregnation period of the animal. For this you need sensors that are more specific. This area has been growing impressively in recent years.”

Looking ahead
In Europe the move towards smart farming is being encouraged through various projects and programmes funded by public and private money. These include EU initiatives and projects at a national level. It remains to be seen how Brexit will affect these. While the M2M agricultural sector is still emerging, M2M and IoT technologies will be key enablers for transforming the sector and creating the smart farming vision.

Interest in the IoT is already strong from agricultural machinery vendors such as John Deere, Claas and CNH Global, while there is also considerable attention on data and farm management systems from a variety of players including agri-food giants such as Monsanto.

“The US market is leading the way in smart farming, particularly in areas such as arable farming,” Romeo concludes. “Europe is increasingly looking into small-sized field farming, precision livestock farming, and smart fish farming; and this trend will soon expand into other important agricultural economies.

“In terms of time scale, the next two years will be exploratory for smart farming, but the pace of change will intensify from 2017 to 2020. While the M2M/IoT industries will not see the light from the agricultural sector immediately, they need to be prepared, because it will be soon strong and bright.”

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