Will Precision Agriculture Help Save The World? It's A Step in the Right Direction.


Earlier this month, Research & Markets shared their prediction that the still early global precision agriculture market will reach over USD 43 billion USD in less that ten years. And while there are many technology ecosystem components, as well as engineering and consulting services rolled up into that number, a substantial chunk can be attributed to IoT-based solutions using remote sensing to collect information on everything from temperature and moisture levels to nutrients in the soil and crop productivity.

As is the case with many industrial IoT (IIoT) business cases, adding sensors as part of managing large commercial farms and vineyards enables farmers to automate their operations, maximize yields and quality while controlling costs.

Weather patterns are increasingly erratic; relying on historical data, local weather forecasts have become less reliable.  Forward-thinking growers are looking to IoT solutions to leverage real-time sensors directly from their fields.

If agriculture is to continue to feed the world, it needs to become more like manufacturing, says Geoffrey Carr. Fortunately, that is already beginning to happen. Economist 2016.

Tom Rogers is an almond farmer in Madera County, in California’s Central Valley. Farmers in that territory grow 80% of the world’s supply of these nuts, earn $11 billion from doing so. But almonds are thirsty. A calculation by a pair of Dutch researchers six years ago suggested that growing a single almond consumes around a gallon of water. And water has to be paid for.

Technology, however, has come to Mr. Rogers’s aid. Moisture sensors planted throughout the nut groves keep track of what is going on in the soil. They send their results to a computer in the cloud (the network of servers that does an increasing amount of the world’s heavy-duty computing) to be crunched. Mr. Rogers’s farm, and similar ones that grow other high-value but thirsty crops like pistachios, walnuts and grapes, are at the leading edge of this type of precision agriculture, known as “smart farming.”

In Canada, America's neighbor to the north, one IoT company has zeroed in on a very particular, end-to-end solution for precision farming. LiveIntersect’s smart farming solution works in extreme conditions, like specs used in oil and gas, and is cost effective for farmers.

Esprida started connecting embedded devices in 2001, and has connected over 250,000 things of all sorts of shapes and sizes primarily in retail and industrial spaces.  We developed a smart agriculture prototype and the level of interest was so overwhelming, we decided to create a product around it.

Addressing the farmers’ need to protect orchards, grape vines, tender fruit trees and berry patches from severe winter and drought, Esprida launched its latest IoT solution- ConnectedCrops for the agriculture sector. It is a simple solution, that helps farmers control irrigation levels by using soil moisture and air temperature sensors.

ConnectedCrops is a system that works locally (critical to farmers, of course) as well as in a distributed fashion using cloud analytics and more to send data literally into the hand of a farmer, on their smart phone.

Unlike many IoT farming and precision agriculture solutions, Esprida packages all the elements required for a complete deployment - hardware, software, mobile app, and data subscription. Amongst them the most popular solutions are the frost management/ temperature inversion and dual irrigation management.  The installation and user-interface is designed targeting the information that is meaningful to farmers. This can be set up in minutes, tested in a small setting, and expanded over time (always a wise move in the still nascent world of IoT!)

Real-time analysis through the app "allows instantaneous decision-making in response to field measurements."

"Successful entrepreneurs, farmers or otherwise, are taking advantage of newer IoT solutions to increase profits" said Asad Jobanputra, Director of IoT Solutions, Esprida. "The key innovation here was hardware that is simple for farmers to install and maintain, and a mobile app that hides the complexity behind big data, analytics, etc.  Its an app that simply shows what is going on in a field and what to do next."

Thanks to the readings of weather sensors, farmers now have far more accurate information and can make better informed decisions and faster than ever before. For example, ConnectedCrops sends alerts when temperature in a farmer’s field has dropped, for example in the fruiting zone for wineries, giving them heads-up that they should start their fans to circulate warm air.

Weather sensors are generally connected to a central system that gathers information from all the connected parts and locations. and very large and distributed farms are able to manage a lot more from the mobile app presented data than was ever possible before the Internet became pervasive, including in rural areas. "The LiveIntersect platform adapts to any protocol being used, Farms can collect data using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Cellular, or Lora: whatever is most appropriate" Asad said.

Why is all this so important?
Using precision farming techniques to refine "irrigation scheduling" not only allows for the reduction of the consumption of unnecessary water, but also improves the bottom line of the agricultural industry. There are dozens of research initiatives underway, including the use of artificial intelligence to improve the accuracy of scientific models and equations to compute more precisely how much water growers really need. And connected sensors provide the most accurate data that leads to precision.

"By 2050, the planet needs to feed 30% more people using only 10% more land," said UN FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem . "This is not just about conserving water and protecting crops, it's also about a longer-term sustainability strategy getting increasing attention not only from farmers but the governments who support those farmers with programs around the world. Assuring a safe and predictable food supply is critical to health and well being of human beings, and we should be pursuing any innovation that helps address, at scale, a better system for efficient food production."

Given their Canadian roots, the ConnectedCrops team is proud of one accomplishment in particular - the ability to support vineyards and orchards in their country at temperatures as low as -20F. "We've designed for winter weather, which has been a great plus for our customers here in Canada, a country where technology innovation is reaching new heights. We're proud to be part of a particularly meaningful technology movement." 

How early are we?
"Precision crop management is still in the experimental phase," says Susan Moran, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and member of the NASA Landsat 7 Science Team, based in Tucson, Arizona. "But there is a significant number of farmers who use high technology and remote sensing data for precision crop management."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, and NOAA are among key agencies contributing to this revolution in large-scale agriculture. The goal is to improve farmers’ profits and harvest yields while reducing the negative impacts of farming on the environment that come from over-application of chemicals.

According to Moran, the term "precision farming" refers to the use of an information and technology-based system for within-field management of crops. "It basically means adding the right amount of treatment at the right time and the right location within a field—that’s the precision part," Moran explains. "Farmers want to know the right amounts of water, chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides they should use as well as precisely where and when to apply them.

From Japan to Canada, Smart Agriculture on the Rise
Last year, Fujitsu, japan announced a new IoT application that can replace farmers with data scientists.  Fujitsu has come up with its 'Akisai' cloud for agribusiness, and the connected cow.

When cows are in heat, they walk more, so by attaching pedometers to them farmers can identify which ones are ready for breeding. This cloud-based Akisai platform is Fujitsu's attempt at Software as a Service (SaaS) to increase efficiency and modernise agriculture.

And back in Canada, one of the most innovative telecoms in the world, Bell Canada, recently announced a $500,000 contribution to the University of Manitoba's Front and Centre campaign to launch the Innovations in Agriculture Program, providing students at one of Canada's leading education institutions with opportunities to develop IoT technologies for application in agriculture and food services.

“Bell MTS fully appreciates the vital contributions our country's top schools are making to technology design and development," said Stephen Howe, Bell's CTO and EVP. "We're very pleased to work with the University of Manitoba to create this opportunity for students and faculty to develop new and better IoT solutions for a sector that is a mainstay of Manitoba's economy and important to all Canadians."

The gift was warmly received by the U of M, a highly regarded agricultural university. Karin Wittenberg, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences said, “Working on IoT solutions within the agriculture, food and nutrition sectors not only offers our students a unique skills development opportunity that will support their future career opportunities, it is critical to the advancement of our agriculture and food economy.

The $500,000 in funding from Bell MTS will advance student, faculty and public understanding of the potential for advanced communications in agriculture with mentorships, research funding, and access to new co-operative education opportunities.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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