You wake up and check your smartphone for the weather, the morning news, and your day’s schedule. When your alarm goes off, your thermostat reads your environment and adjusts to keep you comfortable. Using an app on your phone, you’re able to start the coffee machine before ever leaving your bed. You check your FitBit to see how well you slept last night, and by downloading your data from the Cloud, you can compare it to how well you slept last week.

And in each of these small, daily tasks—not to mention hundreds more—you interact with the Internet of Things, or IoT. IoT impacts every aspect of our daily lives, from health and fitness to our homes and the products we buy. But what is IoT, and how does it help us grow better food for more people?

Understanding the Internet of Things (IoT)

At its core, the Internet of Things (IoT) refers to anything that’s connected to the internet. That includes both your smart TV and the supercomputers that run entire cities. But, the term also describes devices and objects that talk to each other through the internet. “Simply, the Internet of Things is made up of devices—from simple sensors to smartphones and wearables—connected together,” Matthew Evans, the IoT program head at techUK, says in a 2018 interview with Wired.

What’s remarkable about this inter-connected device communication? It allows information to exist in a system rather than a silo. Plus, we can connect those “talk” capable devices to automated systems. This creates vast systems that learn from different experiences and adapt based on their data and history.

“It’s about networks, it’s about devices, and it’s about data,” Caroline Gorski, the head of IoT at Digital Catapult explains in the same Wired article. IoT lets devices on closed private internet connections communicate with other devices, and “the Internet of Things brings those networks together. It gives the opportunity for devices to communicate not only within close silos but across different networking types and creates a much more connected world.”

By 2020, half of new businesses will use IoT to drive their internal and production processes. It might even spur the “fourth industrial revolution,” according to James Temperton, a correspondent for Wired.

Smart factories are leading the charge

IoT has the most practical applications when it comes to making factories smarter. In fact, it’s changing the way goods get produced around the world. At the forefront of this push? Germany. Detlef Zühlke is head of one of the world’s largest research centers for smart factory technology. The facility is home to a row of boxes packed with wires and circuitry.

Within these factories, IoT sensors can reduce waste and increase production efficiency.  They save time, money, and resources.

“The quality and scope of the data across the Internet of Things generates an opportunity for much more contextualised and responsive interactions with devices to create a potential for change,” continued Gorski. It “doesn’t stop at a screen.”

The smart farming revolution

If you’re old enough to remember them, think about the difference between an old rotary phone and the smartphone in your pocket. Sure, they both serve the same purpose on the most fundamental level. But your smartphone lets you track your steps and connect with friends and family. It holds everything from language translators to your health data, and so much more. The applications are boundless (as are the apps).

The same is true in the world of modern farming. Sure, the old tractors can get the job done. But smart farming empowers us to do so much more than our ancestors ever could have imagined. Perhaps most importantly, it lets us make better decisions based on almost instantaneous analysis of many data points. This is a crucial component to sustainable farming.

How IoT helps us farm smarter

IoT solutions for agriculture are still evolving. But smart farms around the world are using technology to transform agriculture. From helping farmers manage customer service and behind-the-scenes processes to predictive cropping and advanced analytics, here are some of the top ways IoT is changing the ways we think about growing, harvesting, and distributing food.

Management information systems

Think about the amount of information farmers need to process, day in and day out, to keep things on track. In the fields alone, there are hundreds—if not thousands–of data points. These include soil nutrient levels, seed germination speeds, plant root depth, water availability, and humidity, just to name a few. Rippling out, we need to keep track of our equipment, machinery, and storage containers. Not to mention our crews and payroll. Even further from the field, we have to track local, national, and global trends influencing crop prices. Slap customer service, inventory, and shipping information on the to-do list, and there’s more to track than any human ever could.

That’s where IoT comes into play. Our smart devices communicate with each other at every step of the growing process. That means we can collect, process, store, and transfer data as needed. Not only does this keep us sane, but it also lets us be more agile. For example, using data to predict crop yields allows us to plan ahead. This year, by the end of harvest, we already know groundwater levels in each of our fields. This knowledge will empower us to plant more precisely in the spring, without risking too-dry soil where seeds will be unable to germinate.

Precision agriculture

While livestock farmers have used IoT for a few decades now, it’s a relatively new advancement when it comes to growing cereals and pulses. We don’t need to track the heart rates, time spent grazing, and miles walked each day for our crops the way cattle farmers need to monitor their herds. But the benefits are similar when it comes to precision agriculture.

For a long time now, we’ve known just how crucial it is to maintain proper moisture levels to grow a healthy crop and still be kind to the earth. Too little moisture and seeds don’t germinate, or their growth is stunted. Too much water leads to run-off of synthetic fertilizers and valuable nutrients. But how do we monitor, precisely, the current moisture level and apply treatments at the right time and in the right quantities? IoT.

Thanks to advanced sensors and spatial mapping, we can manage our fields by the square inch instead of by the acre, which means we’re using fewer resources and growing higher-yields. The best part? A lot of the work can be automated, so we’re also able to take timing and guesswork out of the equation.

Agricultural automation and robotics

Speaking of automation, it’s also changing the way farmers undertake routine processes. In the past, a considerable part of farming was time spent in the fields, manually monitoring different data points. Then, the farmer would take that information and decide how much fertilizer or pesticide to apply to different crops. Not only was it mostly informed guesswork, but the consequences of miscalculating could be dire.

Now, thanks to IoT advancement, field sensors communicate with programs that analyze data at the touch of a button. From there, the analytic software can transmit that information to automated agbots. These AI-driven machines can water, fertilize, and tend the crops, all with human oversight, but no need for direct instruction or intervention and administer a precise amount of inputs for optimal plant health and minimal environmental impact. Thanks to these advancements, comparing modern farmers and farmers of the past is like comparing surgeons and blacksmiths. While both are masters of their craft, one requires a different level of nuance and precision. 

The process of applying robotics, automatic control, and artificial intelligence techniques has changed everything from crop health assessment, irrigation, and crop monitoring to crop spraying, planting, and soil analysis.

Role of drones

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in recent years has been advancements in drone technology. Using drones, we can gather crop health imaging and integrated mapping.

From this data, we can draw insights regarding plant health indices, plant counting and yield prediction, plant height measurement, canopy cover mapping, field water mapping, scouting reports, stockpile measuring, chlorophyll measurement, nitrogen content in wheat, drainage mapping, weed pressure mapping, and so on. We can even switch out camera sensors and visually see bugs and where they are damaging crops. Better yet, the data updates in real-time, so we can make adjustments as needed, no matter where we’re at in the growing process.

Smart tractors

As a recent article by TechRepublic notes, “The Internet of Things (IoT) is tangible for today’s farmers. The machines farmers employ to traverse their fields are stuffed with sensors and software that gather data, process it with machine learning, and beam it into mobile apps. The sensors are the eyes of the machine. The software and mobile apps bring the data to life.”

This interconnectedness is one of IoT’s most significant benefits. For instance, the John Deere tractors that Northerly uses don’t have to be able to analyze data, so long as they can communicate with a device that can. For example, as noted in a 2016 article by Network World, “iPads are a part of John Deere’s technology arsenal. The company created an iPad app with nine mapping layers that track what’s happening in the field. Users can set, for example, how many seeds are planted per acre, and precisely how far apart they are planted.”

Of course, there are still challenges to overcome

IoT in farming is nowhere near as widespread or popular as consumer devices with IoT capability. And because there’s less push for them, there are more potential complications that will still take time, effort, and resources to consider. First and foremost among these challenges are concerns for data security and data protection. But, as with any new technology, it’s crucial to weigh the risks and rewards.

As IoT technology continues to improve agriculture, we’re looking forward to more sustainable practices. Through automation, precision farming, and smart resource utilization, we can grow better food for more people. That’s the future for farms like Northerly.


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