Getting smart about agriculture
The Internet of things offers enormous potential to farmers seeking to increase yields, reduce resource wastage and improve efficiencies, says Reshaad Sha, CEO at SqwidNet and chief strategy officer at DFA.
At present, there are over seven billion people on the planet, a figure that's expected to reach close to 10 billion by the year 2050. Such a massive rise in population will undoubtedly mean that food production will need to significantly increase, if production is to keep pace with the population growth. This, in turn, means farmers need to find better and more efficient ways of growing food, increasing their yield and reducing the risks of crop failure. Achieving this would include not only effectively managing input resources like fertiliser, water and seed quality, but also focusing on minimising the impact of variables like pests and bad weather.
The conventional approach to obtaining data relevant to such requirements would entail physical crop inspection, which is not only time-consuming, but can also prove quite inaccurate. The same goes for fixed and tractor-mounted sensors, which cannot deliver a thorough real-time picture of what is happening in the fields. Moreover, even when farmers are able to get their hands on data via the methods above, there is still the difficulty in translating this into operational insights that can actually help them to improve their methods.
Reshaad Sha, CEO at SqwidNet and Chief Strategy Officer at DFA, suggests that the Internet of things (IOT) may offer the answer to these farming challenges. He expects this technology to play a significant role in enhancing agricultural productivity in the near future.
"What we refer to as smart agriculture incorporates IOT-based advanced technologies and solutions designed to improve operational efficiency, maximise yield and minimise wastage. This is achieved through real-time field data collection, data analysis and deployment of control mechanisms. We can also expect to see diverse, IOT-based applications designed specifically for the agricultural industry coming to the fore and playing an instrumental role in the enhancement of farming processes," he says.
"For example, something like precision farming offers an approach to farm management that uses IOT to optimise returns and ensure the preservation of resources, by obtaining real-time data on the conditions of crops, soil and air while allowing the farmer to take specific actions based on the observed information."
Sha explains further that smart irrigation will also offer enormous benefits, as water scarcity is becoming an increasingly significant problem. He suggests that an IOT-based smart irrigation system will be able to measure various parameters such as humidity, soil moisture, temperature and light intensity, to calculate the precise irrigation requirements.
"Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, also offer multiple agricultural applications, such as monitoring crop health, agriculture photography for site-specific development, variable rate applications and livestock management. Crucially, drones can scan a vast area at low cost, and work with different sensors to gather a wide range of information with ease."
"Another area where the IOT will offer advantages is in terms of yield monitoring, which is the mechanism to observe areas related to agricultural yield, like grain mass flow, moisture content and total quantity of harvested grain. Yield monitoring offers real-time information to farmers to facilitate decision-making and to reduce operational costs and enhance productivity," he adds.
IOT sensors can even be used to monitor the soil, he continues, assisting farmers in tracking and improving the quality of soil, with the aim of avoiding degradation. These sensors allow for the monitoring of a number of physical, chemical and biological properties - everything from texture and water-holding capacity to the soil's absorption rate. Soil monitoring is key to minimising erosion, densification, salinisation, acidification and pollution, to name a few.
"Of course, one thing that more than 60% of farmers agree on is that the high investment costs of smart farming technologies, along with coverage issues, are the major pain points which must be addressed before there will be a major uptake in smart farming. Obviously, the network that these objects and sensors connect to will have to be cost efficient, if costs are to be reduced enough to make this a viable approach," states Sha.
"SqwidNet, a wholly owned subsidiary of DFA, is busy rolling out a dedicated IOT network, designed purely to connect objects to the network, SqwidNet currently covers 78% of the population of South Africa and expects coverage to reach 85% early in 2018. Since virtually every device that is connected only transmits a small amount of data, and usually in bursts, this means that the cost of connectivity will be minimal. This network, therefore, offers the perfect opportunity to accelerate the development and deployment of smart farming solutions, among many other applications."
Taking advantage of the data IOT provides, farmers can work their land while receiving updates from any asset anywhere on their properties - from crops to machinery and markets, all monitored without the need for the farmer's presence. Furthermore, access to such knowledge in real time will enable the farmer to view data on soil and crop conditions, ensure crops are fed and watered without human intervention and even predict and prevent crop disease.
"Ultimately, future agricultural success will be built on the implementation of a multitude of different IOT sensors, on collecting and analysing the big data provided by these sensors, and on the intelligent and secure network that delivers this data to the farmer. With all of this in hand, farmers will be well placed to maximise efficiency and increase productivity," he concludes.