Mucking in: Technology down on the farm

  • March 28, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

IMC executive editor Steve Rogerson listens in on a webinar discussing the latest in smart agriculture.

I must admit I have been more than a little sceptical when it comes to smart agriculture applications for the IoT. I mean, these farmers have been doing this stuff for years, often using traditional methods. OK, they may buy a new tractor every now and again, but really what good can the latest communications technology be to fields and cattle?

Ah, I was about to be educated when I dropped in last week on a webinar being given by Telit and its partners Amdocs and Rad on this very subject, and I have to admit my eyes were opened.

First, some important facts. Agriculture uses up to seventy per cent of the available freshwater supply, making it by far the largest freshwater consumer. Secondly, with the world population expected to grow thirty per cent by 2050, food production must increase seventy per cent to meet demand. That puts a lot of pressure on our farmers, and some are now reacting by deploying IoT technologies.

The platform the webinar was plugging has its origins in both Industry 4.0 and IoMT, the so-called internet of medical things, and in fact the technology can be used across multiple verticals. But we are here to talk about farming.

The webinar focused on LoRaWan, because this has the range to connect to sensors on remote parts of the farm and the long battery life that will let those sensors continue without problem for many years. The set-up combines this with a gateway that can serve multiple purposes such as power over Ethernet, LoRa, serial and fibre as well as a firewall and other forms of security, and edge computing. Let’s do the processing where it is needed.

So what data are being collected by the system? Well, in an agricultural setting, many different kinds of sensors and nodes can be used for collecting information on humidity, soil status, water level, temperature and so on. This can help with controlling irrigation, for example.

These sensors connect via LoRa to the gateway. The data can then be carried from there using fibre or a public carrier network to a secure IT system and analytics servers. The farmer can see the whole thing from end to end and in real time, so the information of what is happening then and there is on display; no more getting into the new tractor and trundling along to a field that could be kilometres away to see what is going on.

Smart agriculture is about the process of applying the gathered key indicators, measurements and parameters to a particular field of livestock group. The farmer can zoom in on an area of a field and see if it needs irrigation. There can be more advanced crop monitoring, even going deep into the soil to check on nutrients. Or it can be used in an extension of a smart building type application to check on the germination phase in greenhouses.

And, in a leaf out of Industry 4.0, it can monitor farm equipment with an eye on predictive maintenance. After all, it is not a good idea for key equipment to fail at harvest time.

As most of the sensors and equipment are outside, then solar cells can be used to power them and the gateways or at least keep the batteries topped up. The sun can also be used to power equipment such as valves for watering crops when the set-up shows they need it. The farmer can get on with other things knowing that the crops are being cared for automatically.

This is all a long way from when I grew up in the countryside in north Shropshire in England. There and then, most houses didn’t even have a phone and fast communications meant running across the field. Sadly, in some parts of the world that is still the situation, but the technology is now there to change all that.