A growing and ageing population, coupled with climate change, are placing unprecedented challenges on the world’s agricultural sector. Could the Internet of Things (IoT) help it meet them?
As we know, the IoT is fundamentally focused on gathering and making use of data which was previously too costly or complex to collect and analyse. Often, that means placing simple sensors across an area which would have been too awkward to gather information from previously.
And this guides us towards why the IoT can have such a powerful impact in the agricultural industry. Information is critical to helping agricultural organisations to operate more efficiently and maximise yields. After all, advancements in agriculture through history have depended on data, from information gathered on the resistances and strengths of different plant varieties, to an ability to forecast the weather accurately.
At the same time, agricultural land under management by a single organisation can stretch to thousands of square miles in rural countries like Australia. Even smaller farms can contain a multitude of different terrains and environments, complex and cumbersome to collect information from by hand. IoT deployments, by contrast, can enable data collection in real-time across vast geographical areas, even in poor weather conditions or in particularly rugged terrain.
Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples.
- Pest management. Optimising crop production depends on keeping weeds and pests to a minimum, but without unnecessary levels of potentially harmful pesticides and weed killers. Now, drones are enabling agricultural businesses to rapidly ascertain where on their land particular pests or weeds are a problems, and target their interventions accordingly. Drones can also detect nutrient deficiencies in crops and adjust watering or fertilising schedules in turn.
- Autonomous tractors. Driverless cars are the smart vehicles which have caught the headlines, but driverless tractors are actually a far more straightforward proposition, given that they operate on enclosed land. Autonomous tractors can theoretically be set up to do almost anything from sowing seeds to harvesting crops, and in doing so they will dramatically improve resource efficiency.
- Livestock monitoring. Particularly in countries with swathes of moorland or ranches covering thousands of square miles, monitoring livestock over a huge geographical area is a key agricultural challenge. Monitoring from the air, in helicopters or planes, is a well-established strategy – but it is expensive. With the IoT, such monitoring can take place using either drones or wearables for the livestock – which have the added benefit of enabling active monitoring of animals’ health.
- Climate responsiveness. Temperature, humidity, wind and rainfall are all key data for running a successful agricultural operation, whether with arable or livestock. An IoT ecosystem can enable this data to be collected across an area of land constantly and in real-time, fed into analytics platforms and turned into tangible actions such as how much to irrigate a field, and even the best time to undertake a harvest.
Efficient, productive and yet environmentally-sensitive approaches to agriculture are essential if the planet is going to feed its going population, manage the decline in natural habitats and key species, and avoid contributing unnecessarily to climate change and pollution. The IoT has huge potential in this sector to drive more intelligent, responsive and also proactive approaches – we are only just seeing the beginning of that potential.