Smart Farming: How IoT and The Edge Will Feed the Human Race

In the 20th century, farming progressed on a scale that would be inconceivable to every prior generation, going back 10,000 years. 

Gas-powered tractors replaced animal-drawn ploughs. Long, tedious, back-breaking manual labor—that for millennia had to be done with hand-held tools—was replaced by mechanical harvesters and planters. Life-changing breakthroughs in pesticides and bioengineering made it possible to grow exponentially more food in many more locations and climates. These breakthroughs engendered yields never before imagined, making it possible to feed billions more people across the globe.

As revolutionary as the transformation of farming during the 20th century was, we’re on the verge of another, potentially greater transformation in agriculture in the 21st century: Smart farming. 

What is Smart Farming?

Smart farming, also called precision farming, is an emerging form of agriculture that optimizes processes and resource use with the Internet of Things (IoT) technology. IoT devices and sensors are able to collect vast amounts of agricultural data, including crop yields, soil quality, plant disease outbreaks, weather and climate fluctuations, potential machinery failures, and animal health.

Although there are not as many IoT devices in farming as there are consumer-connected devices, the adoption of IoT solutions in farming is steadily increasing. BI Intelligence predicts that IoT device installations in the agriculture industry will increase from 30 million in 2015 to 75 million in 2020, for a compound annual growth rate of 20%. They also predict that the global precision farming market size will triple by 2025, reaching $15.3 billion.

So, what does this mean for agriculture today? Smart farming will provide revolutionary advantages to farmers through next-gen technologies and practices, including:

Weather and climate monitoring

Weather is one of the most challenging aspects of farming. Crop yields and revenue can largely depend on accurately measuring conditions such as temperature, rainfall, humidity, moisture, and atmospheric pressure. 

IoT devices can precisely measure these conditions in real-time, assisting farmers in determining ideal planting and watering times, and anticipating pests. The data can also be sent to farmers’ mobile devices for easy, instantaneous access.

Weather monitoring devices can also utilize machine learning technology to draw on historical data and better predict unforeseen circumstances, such as early frosts or heavy rainfalls. Farmers can then react and adjust their methods and practices accordingly.  

Soil condition monitoring

Conducting soil measurements is an essential aspect of farming, particularly for predicting irrigation needs. To produce the best yields and healthiest crops, you need to measure soil temperature, moisture, pH, salinity, and CO2 levels. Doing this manually can be a tedious and time-consuming process, and the results often vary in accuracy. However, until recently, it was the best we could do.

Soil condition monitoring sensors can collect these measurements automatically, and the results will be more precise and reliable. Other data (like weather forecasts and climate conditions) can be combined with soil condition data to optimize irrigation and maintenance.

IoT sensors also enable better water conservation by ensuring there isn’t over or underwatering of crops. According to the World Wildlife Fund, agriculture consumes about 70% of the world’s fresh water supply. Better water conservation in farming not only saves on water costs, but it can go a long way towards preserving groundwater reservoirs and limiting soil runoff into rivers and other bodies of water.

Animal monitoring and management

IoT sensors can also be attached to animals to monitor their health. Data such as body temperature, physical activity, and nutritional information can be collected on each individual animal, as well as collective information about entire litters or herds. Sick animals can be identified much sooner, often before physical symptoms are visible. The animal can then be separated from the herd as soon as possible, dramatically reducing the chances of an outbreak.

Motion sensors can be used to learn more about the way animals behave, both as individuals and as members of a group. It can be determined with much higher accuracy whether an animal is in heat, calving, eating, or ruminating. Dominant and submissive animals can be better identified for breeding purposes and to adjust various elements of their care.

Insemination windows can also be better calculated. A 2016 report by Penn State University reveals that on dairy farms in the United States, insemination windows are undetected approximately half the time. It also states that 15% of cattle presented for insemination are not actually in heat. Smart farming enables more robust and dependable breeding, which results in healthier livestock in greater numbers, and more revenue for farmers. 

Drones

Drones can be a game-changer in managing agricultural processes. They can provide aerial maps of large areas, sprinkle pesticides, and locate wandering animals. They can also be instrumental in collecting details on plant counts, yield predictions, health indicators, height meterage, drainage mapping, and various other important data. Finally, drones can save farmers a considerable amount of time and labor, since all this information is collected without having to physically traverse the fields. 

Robots and autonomous vehicles

The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available. Machines will soon be able to completely take over a multitude of agricultural tasks that currently require a human. Tractors, planters, and harvesters will be able to operate without a person controlling them. Automated machines conducting these activities can reduce seed loss and continuously space plants the ideal distance apart, creating the highest possible yield per acre.

Weed-killing robots are also on the horizon. Robots can not only work all day without tiring, but they can be far more precise in directly targeting weeds and not crops. This requires less pesticide use, while also killing weeds more effectively. Farmers save on the costs of chemicals while improving results and being more environmentally friendly.   

Smart farming can’t come soon enough

The more efficient and productive agriculture is, the more food people have to eat, and the less food costs. As far as incentives go, that’s pretty much as strong as you can get. And the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production needs to rise by 70% by 2050 in order to feed an additional 2.3 billion people. 

As the IoT revolution transforms modern agriculture, farms will generate a tremendous amount of data that the cloud simply won’t be able to accommodate. Business Insider estimates that the average farm will generate over four million data points a day by the year 2034. In order to feed the planet, farms in the near future will need to connect at the edge – the periphery of the network that’s as close to the end-user as possible – in order to store and process this daily deluge of data. 

At Netrality, we’re excited to be at the forefront of advancing rural connectivity in America, and we’re proud to be able to meet farmers’ evolving connectivity needs. For more information about how Netrality’s interconnected colocation data centers can give you the power of the edge, contact us.

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