Here’s how IoT sensors are disrupting the food industry
The food and agriculture industry is one of the oldest industries in the world - early civilizations lived or died based on how well they were able to manage their food supply - our history is littered with instances of bloody wars being fought over means of food production. Today, the industry is a veritable goliath, employing millions of people and accounting for some truly staggering global numbers. In this article, we are going to explore how IoT sensors and wireless networks are changing the landscape of this crucial industry.
The food industry is one of the biggest industries in the world, with a worldwide market cap running into trillions of dollars. The food industry, though, is a rather unique beast in that it's important not for its economic significance alone - the food we eat quite directly impacts the quality of our lives. In recent years, public awareness about the crucial importance of nutrition in mental and physical health has increased greatly.
Today’s consumer is extremely sensitive to the many health threats posed by inadequate nutrition and industrially processed foodstuffs. Consumers have been clamouring for drastic change in the food sector for quite some time now.
Moreover, our population hit the 8 billion mark a few weeks ago, (with the final billion coming in just 12 years!). The challenge of producing enough food for this burgeoning population is more daunting than ever.
It is estimated by the United Nations that over 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. Around 49 countries of the world are allegedly on the edge of famine. Against this backdrop, there is an ever more urgent need to find efficient and effective methods to produce nutritious and healthy food to feed this growing global populace.
With IoT sensors bringing about dramatic changes across various sectors, the food industry has been no exception. In the early years of IoT, smart agriculture or precision farming as it came to be called, was touted as one of the key use-cases of this budding technology.
As of 2023, IoT-based precision farming has taken off big time. This has bolstered hopes that connected technology enabled by wireless sensors can potentially play a defining hand in ensuring global food security in the future.
But it’s not just precision farming or smart agriculture. The global food industry comprises several distinct arms across production, distribution, processing etc. IoT technology has shown promise in all of these various arms of the global food supply chain.
From the farm to the factory to the restaurant table, wireless sensors and IoT networks are being employed in a number of ways towards the end of bringing about more efficiency, cost reduction and safety in the food space. This is being done across several verticals within the industry and a number of IoT-based solutions have already done a tremendous job of establishing themselves as industry standards within the space.
Here are some of the most popular IoT applications within each arm of the food industry.
Agriculture is, without a doubt, the most important component in the global food chain. After all, food needs to be produced in order to be distributed and consumed. IoT is making its presence in this space practically impossible to ignore.
A number of verticals within agriculture have already adopted various kinds of IoT technologies to great effect. From disease monitoring
1. Automated Harvesting
Automation is one of the biggest USPs of IoT technology. A well designed IoT system can eliminate hundreds or even thousands of man hours from any operation, rendering them more efficient and substantially more cost effective. Moreover, there are a lot of seemingly uncontrollable variables that go into harvesting - weather patterns for instance - IoT-based systems involving wireless sensors, artificial intelligence and self-powered microcontrollers are being used to take these variables out of the equation and ensure a more streamlined and reliable means of harvesting crops.
Harvesting robots are being deployed in a variety of farming scenarios to help accomplish this task. Wireless sensors deployed all over the farm collect enormous amounts of data pertaining to a wide variety of parameters such as soil pH, recent weather patterns, historical weather data, humidity, temperature etc., to name just a few. This information is then crunched by the backend artificial intelligence system, which gleans repeating patterns and actionable insights.
These insights are then used to train the robotic harvesters to harvest the right produce at the right time. With IoT technology, farmers are able to circumvent some of the most painful problems associated with food production, namely untimely weather events and natural variation in crops.
2. Remote sensing
Remote sensing essentially refers to deploying IoT sensors and networks to enable real-time monitoring of a large scale operation of any sort. In an agricultural construct, this usually comes down to implementing a crop monitoring system comprising several types of wireless sensors which offer advanced analytics and real-time intelligence to farmers.
Crop nutrition, irrigation, light exposure etc. can be modulated to a remarkable degree of precision without having to deploy prohibitive amounts of manpower and labour.
3. Cattle Health Monitoring
As of 2020, global milk production reached nearly 906 million tonnes. This number is only growing year after year. Dairy is a dietary staple across the world, and milk products constitute a major chunk of any country’s food production.
IoT technology has radically transformed the landscape of the dairy industry. One particular use-case which we are going to discuss in specific here is IoT-powered cattle health monitoring systems.
Bovine diseases represent a huge drain on resources for cattle farmers. Worldwide, billions of dollars are lost every year due to some common diseases that affect cattle. With IoT technology, we are able to design systems that help us prevent these diseases or, in the least, ameliorate the impact they cause
Large scale dairy operations often have thousands of cattle. Therefore, caring for these cattle often presents a seemingly insurmountable problem. IoT technology is being used in the form of cattle health monitoring systems in order to circumvent this problem and eliminate countless man-hours and huge losses in the process.
Wireless sensors are being deployed to track various health parameters in cattle. Various kinds of pertinent data is collected in real-time, such as body temperature, ambient humidity, heart rate, rumination rate etc. Huge amounts of data are collected in real time, and this helps us track the health of cattle in a granular and highly sophisticated manner.
Any undue variation across any of these parameters can be instantly identified, which allows for timely intervention. Thanks to advanced systems that are capable of recognising adverse patterns in real-time, dairy farmers are able to plan remedial interventions well before their cattle get irreversibly ill.
Food Packaging and Distribution
The next component in the global food production chain is food packaging. The food manufacturing and packaging industry has shown itself to be an ardent adopter of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
Industry insiders hold that the benefits of employing IoT technology in the food packaging industry are indispensable in modern times.
In the following section, we’ll take a look at some interesting use-cases of IoT technology and wireless sensors in the food packaging industry.
1. Smart Warehouse Management
IoT-based smart warehouse management consistently ranks as one of the leading IoT trends. This is because inventory management is a massively complex and painfully expensive overhead to any company that deals with large volumes.
Wireless sensors have been adopted with so much gusto for inventory management, primarily because they are immaculate tracking devices. Inventory management requires large amounts of data to be processed with constant re-calculculations and re-calibrations based on inflows and outflows. This presents a herculean challenge for traditional pre-IoT modalities.
With IoT sensors, the pertinent data can be updated in real-time, eliminating the biggest pain point associated with inventory management. As a result, there are savings and optimisations across the board - stock loading times can be optimised; Available storage space can be utilised maximally, and unnecessary manpower can be eliminated.
2. Smart Packaging
More and more consumers are growing wary of the many dangers associated with packaged food. There is a lot of suspicion and paranoia surrounding the potential health effects of consuming food that has remained on the shelf for a long time.
Thanks to advancements in sensor technology and materials technology, today the food industry has come up with a solution intended to allay these fears - smart food packaging.
Smart food packaging is an IoT vertical that has attracted a lot of hype - it is estimated that the smart packaging industry will reach a market cap of $59 billion by the end of the year 2025.
So, what is smart food packaging?
Smart food packaging refers to the use of intelligent packaging materials that are able to monitor the condition of the food they house in real-time. Often, they are designed to be interactive - allowing customers access to information about the condition of the food product concerned.
Today, smart packages come fitted with battery-free microcontrollers that are able to add additional layers of functionality. These packages are able to communicate intuitively with consumers, adding an additional layer of interactivity to the process of choosing and buying the right kinds of food.
3. Predictive Maintenance
IoT-based predictive maintenance is arguably the largest and most sought after use case within the realm of industrial IoT. Industrial kitchens are typically extremely large operations that contain tens of thousands of moving parts, which are to work together in order to maintain output.
Adding to this already complex set of variables is the uncompromising need for hygiene and cleanliness inherent to this industry. Contamination of large containers can lead to major losses and unpleasantly long downtimes. This is a huge pain-point that food manufacturers have had to contend with.
IoT enabled predictive maintenance can solve this problem to a large extent. Predictive maintenance refers to the use of IoT sensors to oversee industrial processes and alert the management about impending failures, before they occur. Typically, periodic maintenance costs associated with industrial operations represent a large chunk of the overhead costs - with predictive maintenance this expense is slashed - superfluous maintenance visits are circumvented.
Moreover, unexpected downtimes and the associated loss of productivity and revenue is also forestalled using predictive maintenance. These systems are able to monitor the health of industrial machinery in real time and alert the backend when aberrant patterns are picked up - this ensures that remedial action is taken well before a critical failure, saving the operation huge amounts of money and precious time in the process.
4. Supply Chain Management
Managing any large supply chain is painful enough - with the food industry, the problem is all the more difficult because of the perishable nature of food. Food supply chains are incredibly large operations that are intricately complex and require enormous amounts of labour and capital.
IoT sensors and wireless sensor networks are able to dramatically reduce the amount of resources that this aspect of the business consumes - with innovations such as smart warehouses, smart trucks and smart stores, the entire supply chain is able to identify leaks and plug them, adding up to significant efficiency across the entire chain.
Sensors are able to track data at a microscopic level, allowing businesses to optimise their resources across a variety of parameters.
The human enterprise is at a crossroads moment in history - we are starting to realise just how challenging our future is going to be if we don’t make some sweeping changes to the way we organise our lives, and fast!
However, this is also the most promising and prosperous time that humanity has ever seen. Much as we can find a number of issues to highlight and worry about, we also have to consider the fact that never before in history have so many been able to take so much for granted.
Our technological might is such that if we actually sit up and take notice of the mess we are making of the planet right now, we actually have the capacity to course correct before it’s too late. The big question that is facing us right now is how we deploy this immense technological might.
A global food crisis is something that we must make sure never comes to pass. We must avoid this disaster, no matter what the price. It would be an enormous collective failure if we allow this disaster to unfold right in front of our eyes.
IoT technology is still in its adolescence, in many ways. As we move into the future, IoT technology will no doubt play an increasingly important role in our response to these crucial ecological challenges, including that of ensuring continued food security for the world.