How smart technology is revolutionizing agriculture

The measurement of a civilization can be made in its fields and among its crops. Agricultural technology advancements move nations, and provide a basis for extended growth of every aspect of its existence. Despite the ancient nature of farming, technologies such as 3D mapping, nitrogen fertilizer and genetic modification have pushed the cutting edge of the agriculture industry.

Today, the cutting edge of farming technology is almost entirely based on silicon. From digital sensors monitoring soil conditions to weather observation systems, some of the most powerful advancements in farming today come directly from innovative technology placed around the farmland, inside tools, and in the farmer’s hands. With the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, modern sensors, chips and monitoring equipment are helping farmers improve efficiency and increase their crop yields.

Trends in Smart Agriculture

What if only half of a given field needs more fertilizer, or pesticides? What if it’s only one small eighth of a field that isn’t getting enough water? What if only one cow out of a hundred is getting sick?

IoT devices, using the latest IOT technology, can sense the situation around GPS, water, soil, and even crops themselves. LoRa-based IoT devices, such as those made by WaterBit, can see what’s going on even on massive farms, in the range of thousands of square acres. This information can then be aggregated and displayed to the farmer, who can make precise adjustments to exactly where they are needed. Businesses like Quantified Ag can also track a herd of cattle through a variety of stages to monitor its health.

“Power consumption is really important to us since in cattle feedlots, they're going to have cattle for six to eight months, even up to a year sometimes. Cattle aren't too willing to take off their ear tags for recharging purposes, so the battery has to last the entire time. From what we've found, the battery is able to last during the whole process because of LoRa Technology’s low power capabilities. We've seen tags go beyond a year.” Vishal Singh, CEO and founder of Quantified Ag.

These types of problems can beguile the traditional methods of farming and monitoring. Data is the best weapon a farmer has when it comes to minimizing costs and maximizing crop yields. LoRa-based IoT devices for intelligent farming, built on long-range, low-power chips, provide that data on-demand.

The competitive state of the farming industry ensures farmers are always looking to get ahead. From double planting soybeans to monitoring the commodities markets so the harvest is timed properly, farmers are industrious and innovative, always searching for the next smart way to improve the operation. IoT devices are the best way to achieve high ROI through maximizing operational efficiency around the farm.

Livestock

Monitoring a herd of cattle is a full-time job and farmers need technology that will help ease their operations while they continue to focus on their financial growth.

IoT devices offer a number of solutions. One device, currently in testing and design, can be fed to the cow and used as an in-animal monitoring device. This sensor can monitor body-temperature, and send a signal to a veterinarian that the animal is ovulating. This saves time and guess work, letting the farmer know exactly what’s happening in every potential new mother cow. Temperature can be sensed from outside of an animal as well, and Quantified Ag makes an ear tag that can automatically light up when the animal wearing it has a high body temperature. This allows ranchers to go right to the sick animal, and to remove it easily from the herd so as not to infect others. Especially in a feedlot with hundreds and even thousands of animals, this is an important efficiency as well.

One piece of the puzzle that’s rarely talked about, however, is the fact that gathering all this data on livestock enables the sending of that data to a veterinarian. For cattle living in remote areas, this means a veterinarian can examine a cow’s vital information from afar. This means having the ability to remotely video conference with a veterinarian who can then check the animal’s vital statistics without requiring the vet to come out to the property.

Water

Today’s farmers are desperate for data that allows them to make pin-pointed irrigation and fertilization decisions which let them optimize their crop yields. Water and soil are the main factors that mainly drive the crop yields, while everything else remains constant. Once a farmer can control water and soil, he or she can increase crop yields to the maximum level within weather and crop constraints.

WaterBit, Inc., located in the Silicon Valley and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), provides farmers with highly granular, real-time, low cost sensing systems to improve crop quality and yield by optimizing resource use.

The company’s irrigation sensor uses LoRa Technology and the LoRaWAN open protocol to connect devices to the gateway. The WaterBit system provides two-way communications to the end nodes enabling them to take sensor readings and implement control actions in response to the primary needs of irrigation and fertilization. The sensors can detect the water level, iron content and salinity of the soil. As a result of that measurement, farmers can streamline their operations by having knowledgeable data to better manage their crops and ensure the highest crop yields.

WaterBit’s LoRa-based nodes have been installed on numerous types of crops across California’s Central Valley, including corn, cotton, strawberries, almonds, and grapevines, enabling operation, 24/7. The sensors are designed for ultra-low energy and consume just 13 joules per day with the ability to deploy nodes up to three miles away from their gateways in dense foliage. This ultra-low energy design approach also eliminates the issue of battery replacement, resulting in a zero-maintenance product that can be installed in minutes – a unique achievement that is garnering strong customer interest.

“Water is the single most important control lever you have. The second is the soil, but watering is the number one, so that really drives the crops. Once you can control things, you can optimize your yield to the maximum level. Using precision controls, you can optimize taste as well as volume, which is hard to do in other [non-greenhouse] environments,” said Manu Pillai, founder of WaterBit.

The Future

The farm of the future will be instrumented top to bottom. Farmers will be able to know if the barn door is open without being anywhere near the barn. Crops will be monitored live, 24/7, and farm workers will begin their days at a desk, checking metrics and readouts to ensure every crop and animal is meeting expectations.

With IoT, inexpensive monitoring devices can be used anywhere around the farm with little worry for their durability, their cost, or their ability to work together. And therein lies the hidden challenge for IoT on the farm which is to ensure compatibility between sensing devices.

With the latest LoRa-based sensors and products, this concern is largely abated due to the fact that LoRaWAN is an open, interoperable protocol for connecting devices. Compatible products work together and can be tied into a single system on the farm for overall monitoring of everything that grows there. Typical solutions for collecting information from widely spaced sensors include modern cellular networks. These networks cost money to access, and require a good deal of power from endpoint devices to transmit. LoRaWAN-based devices use far less power and can cover those same long distances.

The future of farming includes more data than could ever be collected before. And as most businesses will tell you, if you want to run a better business, one of the first things you need to do is get your hands around the business itself. There’s no better way to do this than through gathering deeper, more robust, and more accurate metrics on all aspects of the business.

For farming and agriculture, there is only one way to accurately get that information without sacrificing hours and days of work. That way is through the Internet of Things.

 

Patrick van EijkThis article was written by Patrick van Eijk, Director of IoT Solutions at Semtech. Patrick has 24 years of Field Sales and Applications experience in high-speed semiconductors as well as high-speed test and measurement systems in the US and Europe. 

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