Sustainable Agriculture with IoT sensors
For decades the agriculture industry has relied on a traditional labour-intensive model. Thanks to recent advances in IoT technology, the primary approach around agriculture has changed dramatically. Thanks to the advent of batteryless sensors and robust connected technologies, farmers today have access to a wealth of real-time insight and intelligence, leading to exponential gains in terms of efficiency and yield.
With the global population touching a staggering 8 billion, it is imperative that we come together to find actionable ways to grow requisite amounts of high-quality food. There is enormous concern from many sections of society about the growing use of pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, which have been linked to several chronic illnesses.
There is a pressing need to identify effective solutions in order to scale up our food production capabilities in keeping with the rising global population.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has made remarkable improvements in nearly every industry. The food industry has not been an exception. Wireless sensors and microcontrollers are being used like never before in agricultural operations to increase efficiency and production while keeping costs low.
Employing IoT networks has allowed farmers to get unprecedented levels of insight into the inner workings of their farms. These IoT-enabled smart farms, as they have come to be known, can consistently outperform traditional farms in terms of quality and quantity.
Smart farms typically have hundreds or even thousands of wireless sensors, all working together to form a gigantic web of interconnected devices - all working in real-time to monitor the farm across hundreds of parameters.
These sensors are typically designed to track things like temperature, humidity, soil pH, moisture content, and nutrient levels. The more data we collect across these parameters in real-time, the more we can use AI to identify patterns and make sensible predictions.
These predictions are then actuated back into the farm in the form of interventions that, over a period of time, drive massive productivity gains.
IoT goes batteryless
In recent years, IoT has gone completely batteryless, thanks to the emergence of viable energy-harvesting technologies. In just a few years, the entire landscape of information technology changed.
The idea of self-powered sensors that could draw power from the environment and work without batteries would have verged on the ridiculous just a few years ago. However, batteryless microcontrollers and self-powered IoT are no longer the stuff of science fiction - they are very much a flesh-and-blood reality in the world around us, and they are causing massive disruption in the world around us.
Thanks to batteryless IoT, we are now able to take connected technology further than we have ever been able to. In the context of agriculture, batteryless sensors have allowed us to deploy nodes more liberally without the constraint of having to account for prohibitive costs and battery-replacement concerns.
Smart farming or precision agriculture isn't quite able to scale up to the level we want if we continue relying on battery-powered sensors. Using self-powered nodes opens up many more avenues for the smart farm to spread its wings and truly take off.
Let's see some of the ways in which batteryless IoT is being used to enable smart farming applications:
1. Soil quality management
There can only be agriculture with soil. Correction - there can be no life without soil. Healthy soil is the very foundation upon which all life on this planet functions. In an earlier article, we'd highlighted just how precariously placed our soils are globally. Worldwide, soil degradation and desertification is happening at an unprecedented rate.
Soils are losing organic content at an alarming rate. Hundreds of species of soil-dwelling microbial life are going extinct each year. This has a direct impact on soil quality and, in turn, on the quality of the food that we grow.
Farmers now use IoT technology to monitor soil health, allowing them to plan meaningful interventions when necessary.
Soil nutrient sensors allow them to find out just how much fertiliser or pesticide they need to use - making sure they don't interfere with the soil's microbiome any more than they have to.
The biggest problem we face with soil today is declining organic content. When soil loses organic content, the varied ecology of microbial communities within the soil starts dying out, resulting in desertified soils that cannot hold on to water and, in turn, result in nutritionally paltry foods.
With wireless sensors, we can monitor the organic content of the soil in real time, opening the door to all manner of corrective interventions.
2. Precision livestock farming
Precision livestock farming or smart livestock farming refers to the use of IoT technology to track the status of farm animals in real time and adjust the various parameters pertaining to their nutrition and health status, allowing for timely interventions.
Using sensors to track farm animals' health, whereabouts, and habits makes for several crucial benefits - firstly, there are the economic benefits that arise from fewer sick animals - i.e. fewer veterinarian visits, treatment costs etc. Sick animals infect others in the herd, so early detection of contagious illnesses saves the farm owner precious resources.
The probability of losing animals is also reduced when real-time location tracking is implemented, again making for significant savings in the long term.
Livestock farming is traditionally quite labour-intensive. IoT deployment can also make for a significant reduction in manual labour. Repetitive tasks can be automated and actuated through systems consisting of microcontrollers, wireless sensors, artificial intelligence systems and farm robots.
3. Smart greenhouses
Greenhouses have traditionally been used to grow fastidious plants, especially those from distant climes that need various ambient conditions to be maintained within a tight range.
This means that growing plants in greenhouses is an expensive proposition, requiring large amounts of energy and labour.
IoT-powered smart greenhouses solve a lot of these problems. Thanks to batteryless microcontrollers and smart wireless sensors, a smart greenhouse can monitor various ambient parameters such as temperature and humidity while also being able to control them automatically without human intervention.
Various wireless sensors are deployed throughout the greenhouse that constantly scours the environment for anomalies, which are immediately corrected without requiring much manual intervention.
4. Crop monitoring
Needless to say, many vagaries are involved in farming - a seemingly endless array of variables that need to be controlled to achieve sizable yields of good quality.
Farmers are always trying to find ways to minimise these variabilities and aberrations to achieve consistently good crop quality. IoT technology can help in this endeavour - specially designed crop sensors can monitor crops in real-time across pre-defined parameters such as leaf quality, colour and root strength. This data is then compared with historical data to establish the crops' health.
Thanks to smart crop monitoring, farmers can:
5. Predictive maintenance
Predictive maintenance allows farm managers to use IoT sensors to collect information about the running conditions of various farm equipment and devices. This will enable them to assess the condition and health of farm equipment, cutting down on unnecessary expenses caused by regular, scheduled maintenance visits.
With predictive maintenance, maintenance visits can be scheduled only when the IoT system notes an impending equipment failure.
Thanks to modern technological standards such as artificial intelligence, data analytics and ML, a farming asset's typical rate of wear and tear can be predicted in advance, allowing farmers to predict when an asset will need maintenance. This translates to increased life cycles of farm machinery, decreased chances of unexpected downtimes and increased overall productivity.
The US Department of Energy has released data that suggests that deploying IoT-based predictive analytics in smart farms can lead to a tenfold increase in overall ROI with a 25-30% reduction in maintenance costs.
6. Process automation
When it comes to farming, much like in many other human pursuits, efficiency is of critical importance - many years ago, with the advent of farming equipment like combine harvesters and tractors, farmers began a process of replacing manual and animal-based labour with machines.
Today, with the advent of IoT technology and wireless sensor networks, farmers can take the next step in this evolutionary process.
IoT sensors enable several automation modalities - for starters, large volumes of performance data can be sifted through in a matter of minutes, resulting in fewer person-hours spent while also making gains across metrics like crop yield, quality and soil health.
Aberrations such as diseases, undesirable weather conditions and pests can easily be tracked using sensors, saving the farm time and money.
Repetitive tasks such as irrigation, fertilisation, vermin control, and even sowing seeds can be automated and streamlined using sophisticated IoT systems.
7. Smart water management
Water is a precious resource for farmers. In times gone by, seasonal fluctuations in rainfall could result in entire provinces being plunged into famines for years.
Today, smart technologies driven by IoT can assist in the equitable use of water resources so that water wastage is minimised. Smart water meters, batteryless sensors and data processing systems are just a few examples of the technology used today to regulate water usage in farming applications. Moisture sensors are being used to operate sprinklers and reduce water waste. Smart irrigation systems these days can predict long periods without rainfall, which allows for mitigating measures to be taken.
With a large section of the global population struggling to access clean drinking water, this particular use case is vital for us to embrace.
The future of farming is smart
Farming is a highly essential industry without which we would not be able to survive. Recently, many aspersions have been cast on the growing dominance of industrial agriculture. Due to labour costs and the industry's highly competitive nature, there is a dire need for technological innovation to streamline processes and efficiency.
IoT technology is already playing a prominent role in farming across the globe. This trend will only grow in the coming years as we take steps towards addressing the challenge of feeding our growing billions.