It seems like everything today is touched in some way by the Internet of Things. It is changing the way goods are produced, the way they are marketed, and the way they are consumed. A great deal of the IoT conversation has revolved around transformation in industries like manufacturing, petrochemical, and medicine, but one industry that has already seen widespread adoption of IoT technology is often overlooked: agriculture.
Of course, many of us are very familiar with some of the efforts that have been made to optimize food production. As populations continue to grow, there has been a serious and sustained drive to increase the crop yield from our available arable land. Some of these efforts have not been particularly popular with consumers (i.e. pesticides, GMOs).
With the advent of new technology and the Internet of Things, farmers are finding new ways to improve their yields. Fortunately for us, these new ways are decidedly less disturbing than toxic chemicals and genetic manipulation. Using sensors and networked communication, farmers are discovering ways to optimize already-known best practices to increase yield and reduce resource consumption.
If it’s surprising that the agricultural industry would be technological innovators, it’s worth considering how agriculture is in many ways an ideal testbed for new technology.
There are a few good reasons for this:
1. Ease of Deployment
Unlike in other industries, deploying sensors and other connected devices on a farm can be relatively easy and inexpensive. In a heavy industrial environment like a factory or refinery, new technology must replace old technology that is thoroughly embedded in the production infrastructure. There are concerns about downtime and lost revenue, as well as concerns about finding the right products or group of products to integrate into their existing technological ecosystem. On a typical farm, there is no need for downtime, and usually no concern for any existing technology that may be incompatible. Inexpensive sensors placed in various parts of a cultivated field can quickly yield very useful actionable data without disrupting a single process.
2. Instant Value
Another reason that agriculture has provided such a fertile testbed for IoT technology is the speed with value and ROI can be realized. Pre-existing metrics of precision agriculture can be applied more easily, maximizing the already-known benefits of established practices (knowing what types of crops to plant when, knowing when and how much to water, etc.). Farmers have also had success safely and naturally controlling pests through the intelligent release of pheremones. Of course, there is the obvious and very tangible benefit of decreased resource consumption and increased yield. A modest investment can yield measurable results within a single season.
3. Continual value
In agricultural IoT deployments, the same practices that provide instant value will continue to provide value for as long as they are employed. Conservation of water and waste reduction provide repeated value, as well as the increased yield brought on by precision farming. There are also opportunities to improve the equipment that farmers use every day. A connected combine or tractor can record useful information about its operation and maintenance. It can also allow for certain processes to be optimized and automated.
There are some real concerns about our ability to feed our ever-growing population in the future. While controversial technologies like genetically-modified-organisms have helped to increase food production, these techniques are not exactly popular with the general public, several of whom have voiced concerns about the long-term impact of a genetically-modified diet.
The good news is that similar increases in food production are possible without the need to modify the food; we simply have to modify the processes used to produce it. And it’s not just about food production. Plants are also used for biofuels and as raw materials in manufacturing. By increasing yield and reducing resource consumption, growers are also having a positive impact on numerous other industries.
For instance, a Colorado-based company called Algae Lab Systems is helping algae farmers improve their output by introducing sensors to measure environmental factors like temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen in their photobioreactors and algae ponds. Algae growers are now able to continuously monitor their crops from any location, also allowing for larger and geographically dispersed operations.