Agriculture Proves Fertile Field for IoT

Technology provides the granular–and speedy–analysis needed by farmers and agriculture companies to increase yields, reduce waste, and boost their profits.


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Image credit: John Deer

With projections of 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, global food production will need to double during the next 30 years, according to farmers, academics, and entrepreneurs speaking at a recent conference focused on the latest developments in the Internet of Things.

With farmers on the front lines, they're going to need more than fertilizer and pesticides to get the job done, creating an opening for IoT and technologies associated with it, says speaker Tom Bradicich, vice president, HP Fellow, and global head of HPE’s Edge and IoT Labs and Center of Excellence. "Farmers and weather are both 'things,' as are crops, farm machines, land, fertilizer, and water," he says. Properly deployed and networked, farmers can "increase food safety and profitability," Bradicich told the audience at the Forrester conference, IoT Grand Slam 2021.

Harvesting IoT Data at the Edge

To address world hunger and to eliminate food insecurity, he proposes a three-phase strategy that includes edge technology for IoT data acquisition; use of advanced data analytics and high-performance computing; and regionally scaling these practices beyond farms to communities and partners.

Turns out farmers have the same data management issues most enterprises have. "The data we deal with is abundant, and we don't really know how to handle it all," says Jacob Smoker, owner and co-operator of the Smoker Farm in northwestern Indiana near Lake Michigan. He's also a fourth-generation farmer, raising corn and soybeans.

"We get data from combines and cattle, and we know how much water they drink. But mining it and using it appropriately–we’ve struggled as an industry," Smoker says, adding that farming is a low-margin, high-capital industry.

Counting Every Grain and Kernel

Imaging, vision analysis, and all manner of data collection from the cabs of combines and tractors are becoming increasingly common in American agriculture. And no data is too granular to overlook, according to Craig Ganssle, founder of AI telemetry vendor Farmwave, which monitors volume of kernels left behind during planting, and other functions.

“We take a picture every five seconds, and it brings a picture to the mobile device in the cab and lets the operator know if it's coming from the left side or right side, at the individual corn kernel level," he explains. The system can be used for rice and other grains.

"Force-multiply this globally, and it will help reduce waste and increase food production," Ganssle says. "Agriculture is just one giant logistics business."

Farmwave user Steve Pitstick, who owns a 1,500-acre farm in northern Illinois, said granular kernel management is something new for farmers. "We've never been able to quantify the loss in a combine. But now we can react and adjust accordingly, gathering the corn and all the stuff we've been wasting." 

Data collection and analysis must be done on the network edge, in this case the farm field, so that calculations and analysis can be done very quickly, Pitstick also explains. Uploading to the cloud, waiting for the analysis, then downloading results can be tricky (and time-consuming), since cellular coverage in the field is so spotty.

Planting an IoT Field Team

While Pitstick doesn't use IoT sensors in his fields, other farmers do. Until recently, agricultural sensors have tended to be basic in both design and capabilities, prompting agriculture schools such as the University of Nebraska to undertake research and technical trials. Mehmet Can Vuran, a computer science professor at the university's Lincoln campus, has been piloting sensors buried below the till level, so they don't get plowed up every year or stolen, another common problem. Underground sensors also allow farmers to collect field data all year long, not just when fields are planted.

Moisture levels, density, burial depth and soil type can also create radio signal propagation challenges, Vuran told the Forrester audience. "So we designed an antenna for wireless underground communication. We call this the Internet of Underground Things," he says.

image of white man in suit and sensors in a field

Image credit: Mehmet Can Vuran and IoT sensor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

But as in most of rural America, connectivity remains an ongoing challenge. Basic cellular connectivity can be unreliable, and carriers aren't stampeding to build out the heartlands with 5G cellular. "Our main challenges are connectivity and over-the-air wireless technology," Vuran says.


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