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How smart farming will reshape agriculture

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

It’s a simple equation: More people on an increasingly threatened planet need smarter ways of producing food. And this is especially so when the humble bee, an insect which pollinates one-third of all fruits and vegetables, is in danger of colony collapse.

It is amidst this backdrop of required food efficiencies and insect protection where the Internet of Things promises to enhance future agriculture. For example, an Irish startup is aiming to bolster bee populations through connected sensors which monitor the insects.

But this could just be the start - with the versatility of sensors and the affordability of IoT posing major potential for the agriculture of tomorrow. Let’s explore what the future of farming could look like as assisted by tech.

Why today

It should come as no surprise that farming retains traditional practices when it comes to growing animals and crops. However, there is simply too much waste when it comes to agriculture - and this needs to change as planetary conditions worsen.

The sector will only need more land to feed more mouths if it continues to produce food in its current format. The world's population is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and exceed 11 billion in 2100. One billion people today, largely in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, depend on livestock for food and livelihoods. Globally, livestock provides 25 per cent of protein intake and 15 per cent of dietary energy.

There are simply too many wastes and inefficiencies when it comes to agriculture. For example, 44 per cent of harvested crop dry matter is lost prior to human consumption. Further, livestock grazing occupies 26 per cent of the planet’s land and 33 per cent of croplands are used for livestock feed production - with the animals themselves contributing 7 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This is a sector which has not modernised where it needs to.

Why smart farming

The Internet of Things offers a solution to agriculture’s efficiency problem at a critical time. Sensors are cheaper and devices are better than ever before - allowing farmers to monitor entire swathes of their operations at the click of a button.

The majority of such smart farm operations are installing Wireless Sensor Networks to boost effectiveness and efficiency. These help evaluate field variables such as soil state, atmospheric conditions, and biomass of plants or animals. Further, they can also be used to assess and control variables such as temperature, humidity, vibrations, or shocks during product transport. This is just the start - with smart farming applications showing promise in specialised software, robotics, data analytics, enhanced location services and connectivity.

The increase to IoT solutions in farming is expected to bring two major changes. First, precision farming. This will create an industry which is more controlled and accurate. Armed with information, farmers will be able to provide their crops or cattle with precise treatment which makes the most of all resources. Second, automation. Data will be able to better monitor and create ideal conditions. In short, additional data on every aspect of the agricultural operation will empower farmers to precisely monitor conditions and automate as needed. Just look at crop management systems like Arable and Semios to see how such solutions take the bulk of the manual work out the equation.

And the sector seems to be slowly, yet surely, embracing the tech-based applications. BI Intelligence predicts that the number of agriculture IoT device installations will hit 75 million by 2020, growing 20 per cent annually. The global smart agriculture market is expected to triple by 2025, reaching $15.3 billion - compared to $5 billion back in 2016. So, what are the next steps to this process?

Getting there

The sector is changing - and one can only predict this to continue along with evolving planetary conditions. There will be different agricultural winners and losers as global climate only shifts further. For example, a report from the United Nations stated that agricultural declines are forecast to be most obvious in West Africa and India where farming yield could fall by as much as 3 per cent. These areas will need more efficient practices, and this is exactly what smart farming heralds.

Weather conditions, soil quality, crop growth or cattle health - data can track the state of farming businesses as well as staff performance and equipment efficiency. Lower production risks are needed with swelling populations and temperamental climate conditions, and this is possible through better business efficiencies and production controls. Consistency is the aim of the game - and this will be empowered by huge amounts of data and automated solutions.

Of course, better farming processes is only half the battle when it comes to eliminating agriculture waste and the carbon footprint that comes with it. Consumer behaviour must improve with the industry. Over-eating is at least as large a contributor to food system losses as consumer waste - two things which consumers, rather than farmers, can change. So, while the farming industry does need to bring its practices into the modern-day, consumers also need to be much more conscious when it comes to their own personal consumption.

So far, the majority IoT farming projects mostly concern data collection for moisture, sun radiation, crops throughput and other variables. However, farming faces the same challenge as automotive, aerospace, rail, maritime and health care in that there are a nearly infinite number of possible environmental scenarios which need to be considered. This is assisted by peer-to-peer IoT technology instead of that driven by data.

Take the example of self-driving tractors or harvesters. The challenge is that such vehicles can encounter obstacles which they cannot identify nor find a way to circumvent. To remedy such events, self-driving vehicles can “call” upon a remote operator which can remotely connect, visually inspect the scene through cameras and, by the same means, drive and direct the vehicle on track again. This sort of system requires other technology than database-based IoT.

Data collection and aggregation is good for understanding the farm, but it is peer-to-peer IoT and its low latency control which will unlock the potential for full automation. Nonetheless, IoT solutions of all kinds promise to modernise agriculture at a time when it is needed most. Maintaining consistent irrigation, fertilizing, or pest control will be integral as climate conditions continue to vary - and this will be necessary for food supplies tomorrow and beyond.

Carsten Rhod Gregersen, CEO and founder, Nabto