Farming Goes High-Tech

Security and data requirements in ag tech are looking remarkably similar to automotive applications.

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Data from dirt — literally — is enabling farmers to perform detailed analysis to make their farming practices smarter, more efficient, and significantly more productive.

Companies in every market are leveraging data to their business advantage, and the agricultural sector is no different. Even the venture capital community has taken note. According to ABI Research, some sizeable venture capital firms are making significant investments to revolutionize one of the oldest industries in the world via digital farms or “ag tech.”

Some of these smart agriculture investments include farm management software from Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Y Combinator. Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB) and Qualcomm Ventures are investing in precision agriculture and predictive analytics. Y Combinator, Google Ventures, Monsanto Growth Ventures, and KPCB Edge are investing in robotics and drones. And KPCB, Verizon Communications, and SparkLabs are pouring money into sensors.

On the technology side, leveraging data goes along with the journey to constantly update the embedded systems of agricultural equipment, said Julian Sanchez, director of John Deere’s Technology Innovation Center.

John Deere, the world largest agricultural equipment supplier, has been on a quest over the past decade to update and upgrade its systems for autonomous operation, as well as improving the embedded systems within its vehicles. In fact, the company is in the process of making the switch to AUTOSAR.

“From an automotive standpoint, that gives scalability and commonality to something that automotive has been working on for decades,” Sanchez said. “And, it gets us away from our own embedded operating system. That is a huge part of where we’re at right now.”

Security in the field
Security is taken just as seriously in agricultural circles as it is everywhere else. Agriculture is big business, and Ag IoT and Ag Tech generate valuable data.

“Security is something our customers ask about a lot,” said Leo Bose, marketing manager for Case IH’s Advanced Farming Systems (AFS). “They want to understand that their data is as secure as the bank that they have their actual funds in. We say, ‘Yes, we have the protocols behind the systems to ensure that there are no breaches,’ as well as giving the farmer the ability to transfer their data to whom they choose. Whether the data is on our vehicle or off our vehicle, we have a full security protocol that’s used to enable and secure that data.”

John Deere’s Sanchez agreed. “One of the reasons security is treated very seriously is that our customers see their farming practices as their intellectual property. ‘My dad taught me this. I tried this last year. I’m going to try it again.’ We take that very seriously.”

In fact, he said the company has an entire organization focused on security, using approved standard practices such as trying to hack into its own system to make sure weak spots are detected in the systems.

In addition, from an architectural standpoint — also similar to automotive — there are several layers of protected embedded systems for everything around vehicle control. “It’s actually kind of funny because although I’m a research and development person, even I have a hard time getting into [the systems], and I need to,” said Sanchez. “I have a hard time even getting the engineers that do have access to it to give me access when I need to do something. When it comes to machine control functions, it really is very well protected, even internally.”

Data collection, data analysis
What is being protected in a secure manner is the data about the equipment itself, along with the agronomic information.

Sanchez pointed out that where to process the data is an ongoing pendulum swing: onboard, off-board, onboard, off-board. “The general approach for John Deere is about real-time machine optimization. We are taking very much an embedded approach to keep the data on the machine, crunch it and let it figure out what it needs to do. For example, in our combines, there are a number of technologies that fall under an umbrella of Combine Advisor, which consolidates all of the data flowing into the combine from cameras that perform vision processing to analyze the quality of the grain to other sensors that measure the amount lost. All of this optimization of the combine, which is a machine learning algorithm, is all being done on the combine. That’s real-time optimization.”

At the same time, all of that data of what’s happening in the combine is being sent to the cloud, he said. “Our cloud strategy is that everything the farmer needs to see from a planning standpoint. ‘How did my field do yesterday? What do I need to do differently today? What were my yields last year versus this year?’ We are providing as many tools in the cloud to be able to analyze all that data, and are leveraging AWS stacks to enable all of the right analytics on the cloud.”

Similarly, Case IH has had yield monitors for many years on its combines, Bose asserted. “Farmers get one chance and opportunity a year to plant their crops. We’re right in the spring planting season right now. When they come through and harvest, the yield monitor on the combine allows them to geo-reference the yield in that field. They can track the actual moisture of that crop, and how many bushel per acre that it’s yielding. They can look at trend lines year over year; they look at different input practices.”

Specifically, Case’s AFS Connect technology connects to the vehicle with a modem that has telematics which collects both vehicle and agronomic data.

Here, a key consideration is making sure the customer owns and controls their data. If the farmer chooses, an agreement can be signed with their independent dealer that allows the dealer to optimize the machine functionality. There can be a similar arrangement for the agronomic data that includes the yield, moisture, and other planting data, and that can to be passed to a third-party provider such as an agronomist that’s going to make a variable-rate prescription for the field, a seed prescription or maybe a variable-rate pesticide or herbicide application, Bose said.

“That tool then allows them to visualize not only what they harvested or what they applied, and AFS Connect is the portal or a gateway into the vehicle that allows them to see and visualize that equipment running in the field. Or, they’re able to see their fleet, as well as then look at the data year-over-year. Farmers want to look at that data. They want to be a part of their fleet, and they want to understand what those machines are doing on a minute-by-minute or day by day basis.”

This trend is only expected to increase. “When you look at sensing and perception technology, the sensing technology today as we see it is going to evolve. When you look at a piece of tillage equipment or a planter, the number of sensors that we’re able to feed back into that tractor cab or combine cab and the processors that are going to need to take in that data — that will explode over the next 5 to 10 to 15 years,” Bose added.

Connectivity everywhere
With so much activity in the automotive space for connectivity and connected cars, it’s easy to miss the pull-through into other application areas such as agricultural application. But at the root of all of this technology is an emphasis on connectivity and multiple levels of communication.

Avinash Ghirnikar, director of technical marketing for the Connectivity Business Group at Marvell, said there are many such use cases that leverage some of the work done for automotive, including earth-moving equipment and agricultural equipment, where a level of software customization can help significantly.

Farmers are looking for the same kind of connectivity as other industrial operations, with everything from WiFi and Bluetooth all the way up to 5G. Whether a person is actually driving a tractor, or the tractor is being driven remotely or autonomously, that kind of connectivity will be an increasing requirement, and it will have to be secure, reliable, and fast enough to get the job done.

Agriculture has become increasingly high-tech, and this industry is emerging as one of the leaders in using a variety of technologies to increase profit margins and yield.

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