Precision Farming with IoT: Use Cases, Benefits, and Pitfalls to Avoid

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IoT in farming

IoT technology represents the largest paradigm shift in the agricultural industry since the neolithic revolution. Like never before, farmers and growers are able to manage their fields, track their livestock and reap the bountiful harvest that the twenty-first century has to offer.

Precision farming with IoT enables agricultural producers to forecast weather better than local meteorologists, remotely watch what’s happening in their greenhouses, look at crop yields from a bird’s eye view, and make accurate predictions based on data, not guesswork.

A Glimpse at the Smart Farming Industry

Precision farming uses IoT technology to provide high crop yields and make data-driven decisions while reducing operating costs. Embedded solutions for agriculture rely on specialized equipment, connected sensors, robotics, wireless connectivity, and dedicated applications.

Smart farming systems monitor the state of agricultural fields, the well-being of cattle, and weather conditions with the help of sensors. IoT sensors allow growers to collect various metrics such as temperature, lighting, and humidity and use the data to evaluate the ideal amount of water, pesticides, and fertilizer to yield the best crops.

IoT systems enable the storage of sensor data securely in the cloud. The gateway software connects to the on-premises equipment and transfers the required metrics and calculations like meteorological information and updates on machinery. Bluetooth/BLE, Zigbee, and Z-Wave are common ways to send data wirelessly for processing, analysis, and storage.

Applications display visualized data via web or mobile interfaces allowing farmers to monitor operational and historical information, control specified metrics, and improve crop management and production remotely.

Artificial Intelligence and its subsets bring more capabilities to the ingestion and analysis of agricultural data. Technicians can feed the algorithms with datasets and train Machine Learning models, which help identify plant diseases and predict equipment downtime. Moreover, AI-assisted software can interpret data faster than humans could ever dream.

IoT-based Agriculture Use Cases

Weather Monitoring

There is an inextricable relationship between crops and the weather. While traditional forecasts may be great for the everyday person who is timing a weekend getaway, they simply do not give the level of accuracy and detail necessary for planning in the agricultural industry.

Connected sensors located across fields can consistently track various indicators such as wind speed and direction, rainfall and sunshine, humidity, and air pressure. This valuable data helps farmers prepare crops for floods or frost and make better decisions on the use of water and pesticides, optimizing time, money, and labor resources.

Smart weather monitoring relies on three major technologies—IoT sensors to collect data, satellite data to access geospatial and meteorological information, and Artificial Intelligence techniques to make accurate predictions. Operational and historical data is stored in the cloud and available on a dashboard.

Smart weather forecasting systems can be equipped in different ways. For example, Pycno sensors use both local weather stations and satellite data for forecasting. The system offered by Smart Elements connects to the internet via 3G and collects data from sensors via LoRa, a low-power wide-area network protocol.

Crop Management

Running a farm is not an easy task, and crop management solutions help growers watch, record, and optimize production quality and volume. Sensors placed in fields gather various data like ground temperature and leaf water potential. Simultaneously, the software helps farmers structure and analyze this information to evaluate crop growth, prevent diseases, and manage farm operations such as spraying, fertilizing, and irrigation.

For instance, the functionality offered by Semios includes remote-controlled pheromone dispensers, automated camera traps for pests, and soil moisture sensors installed within each orchard block. Growers can set parameters for potential crop diseases and receive mobile notifications when plants are at risk.

Another tool—Arable—combines climate, plant, and soil data. In particular, the solution watches air temperature, pressure, humidity, evapotranspiration, and solar radiation. It tracks canopy cover with real-time NDVI, sends data to the cloud, and makes predictions with Machine Learning algorithms.  

Greenhouse Automation

Smart monitoring systems allow farmers and growers to keep track of the situation inside their greenhouses, control their equipment, and look at multiple conditions such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels.

Attached sensors collect information about humidity, temperature, lighting, heating, and even leaf wetness. Transferred to the cloud, operational and historical data is available in dashboards to monitor, analyze, and make forecasts. It’s possible to manage the level of irrigation, lightning, or spraying remotely via a smartphone and receive emergency alerts on things like temperature extremes or equipment failure. An example of such capabilities is an automation system from Autogrow; Growlink also offers smart capabilities for remote greenhouse monitoring.

Agricultural Drones

Drones are perfect assistants in performing multiple human tasks—they can plant, spray, irrigate, and monitor crops. These small autonomous devices сan replace giant machines operated by people.

The big draw of camera equipped drones is their surveillance capabilities, which help collect agricultural data and reveal trouble spots with irrigation or pest infestations from the sky. In particular, drones can capture multispectral images, which allow farmers to evaluate the health of their plants, which is not always visible with the naked eye. Another powerful feature is the ability to create 3D maps of fields.

Drones vary in sizes, functional components, and capabilities: some can fly up to 200 meters high and carry weights of up to 200 kilograms. For example, DroneSeed, which helps replant forests, propagates 40 acres daily and, if you believe their marketing, is six times faster than human workers. AgriDrone maps farmland and locates livestock when flying; the drone can track up to 100 hectares per 25-minutes flight.

Cattle Tracking

Connected solutions help farmers collect data about their cattle’s physical location and well-being with the help of attached tags. IoT devices for pets work similarly: smart dog collars, for instance, include GPS modules, step counters, and cameras that live-stream video to the owner’s smartphone.

Smart collars for cows from Cowlar, in turn, monitor temperature, activity, rumination, and other behaviors of individuals in the herd to identify health issues or detect animals in estrus. Alternatively, Allflex offers ear tags that identify and monitor metrics on animals’ health, reproduction, and nutrition.

Smart Farming Benefits

IoT is transforming agriculture in many aspects and brings with it lots of possibilities in terms of process automation, enhanced data interpretation, decreased operational costs, reduced human effort, and accuracy in predictions. Some advantages of smart farming include:

1. Unleashing data and bringing insights for business decisions

In the pre-IoT era, farmers missed out on tons of valuable data on crops, relied on approximate weather forecasts, and measured the volume of fertilizers based on less precise statistical insights. Unconnected equipment and isolated systems didn’t make things better: the information was hard to collect, structure, compare, and decipher.

With IoT farming, agronomists get access to never-before generated data. It’s possible to regularly collect sensor information, link it together, add context, and display visualized data using web or mobile interfaces. Various metrics help specialists evaluate product quality, equipment performance, and resource productivity, and make data-driven business decisions.

2. Decreasing operational costs and reducing the need for manual labor

In the agricultural industry, where margins can be razor thin at times, IoT systems come with additional benefits to the bottom line. One OnFarm study shows that an average IoT-enabled farm sees a rise in yields by 1.75% and an 8% reduction in water use for irrigation.

Labor costs comprise 50% of a farm’s operational expenses, and the implementation of IoT decreases the number of required farm workers. Not only will this save money, it’ll also help to alleviate labor shortages in places like California, where the industry is currently unable to hire enough staff.

Connected solutions automate manual tasks like crop health monitoring, and harvesting, which in turn decreases the number of workers necessary for regular operations. For instance, a strawberry robot harvester has the potential to pick a 25-acre area in 3 days and replace 30 people. While some jobs have been lost, the shift to smart farming has increased the need for qualified technicians to install and maintain connected equipment.

3. Increasing crop yield and quality

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe food kills about 420,000 people every year. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemical substances that appear in products cause 600 million people to fall ill every year. Smart agriculture, in turn, can enhance both the volume and quality of crops. Remote sensors placed in the soil help calculate the ideal amount of water for irrigation, and camera traps help to save plants from pests. Automated farming practices mitigate the risk of human mistakes, such as spraying too much nitrogen fertilizer.

Top 4 Pitfalls to Avoid when Opting for Smart Farming

1. Lack of unity in technology standards: If equipment comes from different producers and years of issue, be ready for the additional budget and tech effort required to unify the various components for simultaneous use. IoT-powered agriculture tools can rely on various standards and platforms, and the development of additional gateways and synchronization of all available components can bring challenges. Also, if two smart farming solutions are not compatible, technicians trying to migrate data from one system to another may lose it.

2. Weak internet connection: A United Soybean Board survey among 2,000 US farmers revealed that 60% of participants don’t have strong enough internet connectivity to run their businesses, and over 50% of farmers would like to bring technology to their operations.

As IoT solutions depend on cloud services, where all data is stored, a robust and reliable internet connection is a must. This can be a major challenge in rural areas where thick forests can interrupt GPS signals. If the gateway loses connectivity, the network won’t be able to store data.

The ambitious rollout of 5G networks across the USA and expanding wireless internet access in rural areas would dramatically increase the efficiency of smart farming. Just compare: syncing data takes 30 to 60 seconds with current internet speeds, and the process will be reduced to 1 second with 5G.

5G networks have already demonstrated their positive impact in several farms all over the world. In particular, a greenhouse in east China got faster and more accurate results growing tomatoes with a 5G connection.

3. Risk of technical failures: Sudden hardware damage or software failure may lead to severe consequences that affect harvest volumes and food safety. For example, if irrigation sensors are down, it will end in either a shortage or oversupply of water. Although most human tasks become automated with smart agriculture, total dependence on IoT without qualified technicians that monitor metrics and quickly respond to emergencies can cost a fortune.

4. Security concerns: The use of internet-connected devices comes with the risk of cyber attacks and security breaches. Potential threats to smart farming include cloud data leakage, radio frequency jamming, and malware injections. In 2016, AgriTech experienced 11 security incidents, according to the Council of Economic Advisors report. Compared to Healthcare (458 cases) or Entertainment (5,534 cases), these numbers don’t look too dramatic. However, the importance of cyber protection for agricultural sectors is no longer in question as it’s made it to the list of 16 infrastructure sectors essential to the US economy and national security.

Is Smart Farming Going Mainstream?

The global digital agriculture market size is expected to grow from USD 5.6 billion in 2020 to USD 6.2 billion by 2021, recording a 9.9% CAGR. Surprisingly, the COVID-19 outbreak made projections even better, showing a favorable effect on the market size. Today, researchers name the following factors fueling the greater adoption of IoT-powered agriculture:

  • An increasing need for agricultural food products
  • Consumer demands for higher standards of food safety and quality
  • The lack of available human labor during COVID-19