Agricultural IoT: Outstanding In The Field

The Internet of Things for agriculture. Yes, it’s a thing—and a huge market.


The Internet of Things represents many different things, for multiple industries and markets. For farmers, it offers the opportunity to take part in another Green Revolution.

Precision agriculture is the term often applied to IoT-based farming. What that means is using sensors and other technology to improve agricultural production, involving all fertile land available, and automating as many tasks as possible to leave farmers with more time to analyze and implement technology. For farmers, that also means not having to hire more farmhands at planting and harvest seasons. Big-data analytics can review weather forecasts and patterns to predict optimal periods to get seeds in the ground and when to harvest.

This is big business, and it is “greenfield” in almost every respect. Agribusiness has been slow to adopt the most advanced technology, so it is largely starting from scratch. But it is also a market where the benefits of data gathering and analytics can greatly improve efficiency of an operation, and the results show rapid economic return. That includes everything from detailed information about what fields need water or fertilizer, and exactly where those resources should be applied and how much, to ways to maximize returns from land.

There are four key areas for precision agriculture: Productivity, pest control, water conservation, and continual value. Topcon Precision Agriculture is among the crop of companies offering products and services in this field to help with these objectives. The Japan-based company, whose expertise is in geo-positioning, offers everything from mapping, design and layout services, to inspection. The company claims accuracy of between 4 to 10 centimeters.

Venture capitalists have grown interested in the field, making equity investments in companies like AgriSight (doing business as FarmLogs) and Conservis. There are many more startups here, as well. Pessl Instruments has collaborated with Huawei Technologies to connect soil moisture sensors, remote weather stations and other Internet nodes through narrowband IoT connectivity.

PTC’s ThingWorx technology platform is addressing “Smart Agriculture,” among other industries. The company has developed an IoT platform for monitoring, managing and controlling connected devices, which can be integrated with third-party systems.

Likewise, the open-source Kaa IoT Platform can be configured for sensor-based field and resource mapping, remote equipment monitoring, remote crop monitoring, predictive analytics for crops and livestock, climate monitoring and forecasting, livestock tracking and geofencing, keeping statistics on livestock feeding and produce, along with smart logistics and warehousing.

Blue River Technology is offering its “See & Spray” technology that uses computer vision to identify individual plants that may be in need of chemical treatment. The company has attracted investments from Data Collective Venture Capital, Innovation Endeavors, Khosla Ventures, and Pontifax AgTech.

And Naio Technologies markets agricultural and viticultural robots for weeding and for working in vineyards. The startup has raised more than $4 million from business angel investors, crowdfunding, and other sources.

Industry grows up
The first International Agricultural Robotics Forum was held last month in Toulouse, France, organized by Naio and Robotics Place.

Peter Gredig wrote in an issue of AgriSuccess magazine, a Farm Credit Canada publication, “What could a smart farm look like? Connected field-specific weather stations and soil moisture sensors could alert you when conditions warrant a fungicide application. Controlled tile drainage valves could open or close automatically according to conditions detected by sensors.”

He added, “Connected sensors will automatically monitor inventories of all descriptions – fuel, feed, crop protection products. When levels drop below a prescribed level, an order could be generated automatically.”

Self-driving cars get a lot of attention in the media. With fewer Americans living on farms in this century, self-driving tractors aren’t as interesting to most people. Yet there is research and development being done on that technology.

Fig. 1: Autonomous farm equipment. Source: John Deere.

“Agriculture is a big user of self-guided vehicles,” Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, a research director at IDTechEx, said last month in a presentation at his company’s event in Santa Clara, Calif. He noted that fully autonomous tractors have been available for the past two or three years, well ahead of self-driving cars in most instances. Case IH, Fendt, and John Deere are leading vendors in the market. And there is an Autonomous Tractor Corporation selling such products.

These “agrobots” are crucial to precision agriculture, Ghaffarzadeh asserted in a talk titled, “The Big Opportunity: Autonomous Vehicles and Robots in Agriculture.” He added, “Navigation autonomy is here to stay,” providing accuracy of operation down to the centimeter level.

Robots in the field
IDTechEx predicts the precision agriculture market will increase to $10 billion by 2022. Other market research firms have similar forecasts. this year said the “smart agriculture” market will be worth $18.45 billion in 2022, enjoying a compound annual growth rate of 13.8% over seven years. WinterGreen Research estimated the worldwide market for agricultural drones is $494 million at present, growing to $3.69 billion by 2022.

Susan Eustis, lead author of the drone study, said in a statement, “Transparency is one of the benefits of IoT that drones bring to digital farming. The benefits of digital farming are higher productivity and more efficient use of land, water, and fertilizer. Transparency in farming is being asked for by consumers. Consumers want to know where their food came from, how much water and chemicals were used, and when and how the food was harvested. They want to know about consistent refrigeration during transport.”

What’s driving this growth and innovation? More mouths to feed on Planet Earth. “We need to boost food production by 70% by 2050,” IDTechEx’s Ghaffarzadeh said.

Accenture Digital noted that the world’s population is expected to rise from more than 7 billion people now to 9.6 billion by 2050. Middle-class families, which can afford to spend more on groceries, will contain some 5 billion people by 2030, according to Accenture.

Fig. 2: Accenture’s depiction of the evolution of precision agriculture.

Two years ago, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors and Flex’s Lab IX formed the Farm2050 collective, bringing together agtech startups and large enterprises in agriculture, such as DuPont. Google is among the companies supporting the initiative.

Advances in computer vision are helping the implementation of precision agriculture, Ghaffarzadeh said. They enable “site-specific spraying of agrochemicals,” with some spraying being done by drones, he commented.

Agriculture is witnessing “advanced computer-vision precision trimming and weeding,” he said. “Fully autonomous weeders are at the prototype and early commercial stage.” Automatic strawberry harvesters are a thing in ag IoT, along with “vegetable picking in semi-structured environments,” now in field trials, Ghaffarzadeh added. There are also mobile robots that push around feed for farm animals.

“Robotic dairy farming has become a multimillion-dollar market,” he said. “Rice plots are sprayed with unmanned helicopters.” As drones become more affordable, farmers are using them to keep tabs on their back 40.

There are challenges to precision agriculture, Ghaffarzadeh acknowledged. Outside of the United States, farm holdings tend to be smaller than the big corporate farms in America. IoT agricultural equipment can present a significant capital cost, as well. The economic factor could come down to “robots-as-a-service” versus equipment sales, he added.

Continual value in precision agriculture means providing service beyond the product sale, another challenge in IoT farming.

Farming is one of the oldest vocations on the planet, but it also is one where technology adoption has been limited. While GPS-driven tractors are being adopted, the next phase of data-driven technology will transform agriculture into a precision commercial operation where crop yield is much more predictable.

That will have a bearing not only on what technology gets adopted, but on the skills and training of the people using that technology, as well.

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