For years we’ve heard about how broadband was needed to support agriculture. However, for many years it was hard to find widespread use of farming technologies that need broadband. Finally, agricultural use of the Internet of Things is spreading rapidly – the research firm Alpha Brown estimates that there were over 250,000 US farmers using IoT technology at the end of 2017.
Alpha Brown says there are 1.1 million farms that could benefit from the technology, with broadband connectivity being a huge limiting factor today. Surveys show that more than half of farmers already say they are interested in deploying the technology. Berg Insight, another firm that tracks the industry says that there is the potential for as many as 27.4 million sensors being deployed by US agriculture by 2021.
Agricultural sensors mostly rely on the 802.15.4 standard, which defines the operation of low-rate wireless personal area networks (LR-WANs). Any given sensor doesn’t generate a huge amount of data, but the deployment of multitudes of sensors can require significant bandwidth.
Following are just a few of the agricultural IoT applications already being deployed.
Cattle Farmers and Ranchers. This is the most widespread use of IoT so far. There are numerous IoT applications being used:
- Moocall is a device that monitors the delivery of calves. It’s a wireless sensor that is strapped to a pregnant cow and that provides an hour’s notice when a cow is ready to give birth.
- eCow makes a bolus (IoT ‘pill’) that sits in a cow’s stomach for up to five months and which transmits constant readings for temperature and pH.
- There are several vendors making sensors specific to dairy cows that measure a wide-range of biometric data including temperature, animal activity, GPS position, pulse and various biological metrics. Dairy farming has become scientific with farmers treating each cow individually to maximize milk output.
Crop Farming. There are numerous sensors not available for specific crops:
- Bosch makes a sensor specific to asparagus farming. Asparagus yields depend upon the ground temperature and farmers use a two-sided foil (black on one side, white on the other) to add or deflect heat from the soil. The sensor measure temperature at various depth and notifies the farmer when it’s time to flip the foil.
- Semios makes sensors that are specific to fruit orchards which measure leaf-wetness, soil moisture, pest presence, and frost monitoring that can be tailored to each specific orchard.
- TracoVino makes similar sensors that are specifically to monitor grape vines.
- There are numerous vendors making IoT sensors that measure characteristics of the soil, plants and environment to notify the need for irrigation.
- There are several vendors providing systems to automate and monitor greenhouses.
Drones. Drones are being used for a number of different agricultural tasks:
- DroneSeed provides drones for forestry management. The drones can identify trees with pest problems and then selectively spray only those trees. The drones also collect data on forest conditions – something that was never easily available in the past. They are several vendors using drones to plant new trees being used to reforest empty land and to renew mangrove swamps.
- Water Conservation. Drones can provide real-time moisture monitoring that can allow farmers to save as much 90% of irrigation water by only watering where needed. This requires real-time collection of data tied into watering systems.
- Chemical use. Drones are also reducing the amount of chemical being applied by monitoring plant health to direct fertilizer or insecticide only where needed.