How Internet of Things (IoT) Technology is Used in Agriculture
Contrary to the traditional image of the country family farming away with pitchforks and hoes, modern agriculture is sophisticated, precise, and technologically advanced. There are few things more important than keeping the world fed, and today’s farmers embrace new innovations whenever they come along. The Internet of Things (IoT) is no exception, and there are a number of ways the agricultural space has been transformed by it.
Most visibly, IoT is useful in keeping growing plants healthy by monitoring weather and soil conditions. Agriculture is a very large industry that goes far beyond farming itself, though, and IoT has also become indispensable in areas from storage to distribution.
There is a great deal of money to be made in food production, and IoT innovators have eagerly jumped in to develop a range of applications. Here are some of the most interesting and impactful.
Farms are big. According to data from a 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, even small family farms average 231 acres. One acre is about the size of a football field, making these “little country farms” not so little at all. Large family farms average a staggering 2,086 acres, and in the industrial agriculture sector, farms are measured in the tens of thousands of acres.
The myth of a farmer taking peaceful stroll through the fields to monitor his crops is just that, a myth. The distances involved are simply too great. Instead, today’s agriculture operators rent helicopters or install cameras, both expensive.
At the same time, though, crops need constant attention and monitoring. Even setting aside crop disease, heat waves, and other obviously problems, catching something like an irrigation system malfunction early can mean the difference between the nuisance of a few hours’ extra work and the loss of an entire crop.
IoT, with its architecture built on relatively inexpensive smart sensors, is ideal to solve this problem. Using low-power, wide-area network solutions like Symphony Link, moisture and heat sensors can report back to central monitoring points over distances of up to 7 miles. It’s enough to cost-effectively create a network over even the largest industrial farms.
Of course, that great connectivity is useless without the right sensors. After all, why beam data across miles of fields if there is no data worth reporting? Verizon is a leader in the IoT sensor development space, and they partnered with California vintners Hahn Family Wines to create a custom “vineyard protection solution.” The Verizon IoT agriculture package that developed out of the partnership has a number of parts.
- Moisture Sensors – Developed by Sentek Technologies, these moisture sensors are battery powered devices that are inserted into the soil near grape vines. They continuously monitor soil moisture, and trigger an alert if conditions become too dry or too wet.
- Weather Station – A fully-featured weather monitoring station that keeps track of temperature, barometric air pressure, humidity, and light levels.
- Water Pump Meter – Tracking water usage is crucial to cost-effective agriculture of any kind. The water pump meter ensures that the Hahn family is kept informed of water usage, and alerts them of any malfunctions. The flood from a burst valve could be just as damaging as a dry pipe failing to irrigate a zone.
- IoT Gateways – These “boots on the ground” access points collect data from the wireless sensors and forward them up to the cloud for analysis.
- Cloud Server – On a cloud server hosted by Verizon, the sensor data is compiled, combined, and analyzed. The end result is a set of reports that gives the vineyard owners a clear picture of their crops, allowing them to protect them, optimize their growth, and stay within budget.
Precision Planting Corn Maze
On the lighter side of agriculture is the good old-fashioned corn maze. Once a staple of American culture, corn mazes across the country still attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, as evidenced by associations and enthusiast clubs like Maze Play. Tourists and locals alike come to explore the corn fields, trying to reach the middle or just enjoying being lost.
However, creating a corn maze is historically an inefficient, wasteful affair. Farmers would plant a full field of corn, and then simply use a riding mower or similar equipment to cut the maze out of the field. It is labor intensive, difficult, and often much of the corn cut down was simply thrown away rather than used. The process was unnecessarily expensive and ecologically unsound.
An IoT firm called Precision Planting saw a niche there and stepped in to fill it. At Radar Family Farms, one of the largest corn mazes covers over 40 acres and is enjoyed by about 50,000 visitors every year. Precision Planting solved this efficiency challenge with their vDrive automated planters. Loading the corn maze map into their machinery, planters travel up and down the rows on their own, intelligently opening and closing seed chutes to plant corn only where needed to create the maze.
Radar Farms estimates the technology saves them at least one full bag of seed with each maze.
One of the most exciting applications of IoT in the agriculture industry is helping to make us all a little bit healthier. Canadian IoT startup semiosBIO has developed technologies to precisely monitor pest levels in crop areas. Using wireless sensors and networks, the firm can accurately determine when a variety of insects are targeting a crop for consumption. When this happens, an alert is sent to the landowner and the other half of the semiosBIO solution activates.
Releasing synthetically created pheromones, the platform drives away insects or signals them to cease mating. It is important to note that the pheromones are not a pesticide, and are non-toxic. The dispensers simply confuse insects and prevent them from damaging crops. Over time, the swarms die off naturally as they cease reproduction.
The sensors and pheromone dispensers integrate with a number of existing agricultural IoT applications, including soil and weather stations as well as more esoteric devices like leaf moisture sensors.
IoT is a natural fit in the agriculture industry. The industry depends on data analysis, which is where IoT excels. Anyone interested in the Internet the Things should keep a close eye on this space.