Reimagining agriculture – from farm to fork

Farming is generally considered to be highly dependent on weather and other conditions. Data analytics and IOT make it much more predictable while vastly improving yields.

Johannesburg, 09 Feb 2021
Read time 4min 10sec

With an ever-increasing population and mounting pressure on ecosystems, it has become essential to look after our natural resources more carefully. The Internet of things (IOT) has a multitude of applications in the agricultural space, as it enables farmers to reduce waste and enhance productivity. Through the use of specialised sensors, wireless connections and software, it becomes easier to ensure that there is food for the future.

Speaking at the MTN IoT Developer Day, Geetha Thiagarajan, CTO for MEA at Tata Consultancy Services, told delegates that in agriculture, there are any number of technological interventions enabled by IOT that can assist farmers to reimagine the entire sector, from farm to fork.

“The key to this sector lies in obtaining a good yield, at the right time, while ensuring that your underlying processes are sustainable and eco-friendly. In the past, this was done manually, but today technology allows for precision agriculture, whereby less resources are utilised while better yields are gained,” she says.

“Such an approach begins with data acquisition, which is obtained from a multitude of sensors which are used to measure a wide range of requirements, from soil temperature and moisture, to salinity and nutrient content. Additional data comes from satellite images or hyperspectral or multispectral cameras mounted on drones.”

From here, she suggests, farmers can use these two sources of data and, with the application of advanced analytics, they can begin to build models of anything from irrigation to the application of pesticide or fertiliser and on to yield prediction.

Mischa Slabbert, a director at G8way Technologies, indicates that the use of sensors is nothing new, as these began being introduced around a decade ago. However, he adds, previously the user could not obtain live data from them. Instead, information was logged to its onboard memory and retrieved later for analysis. This meant the data was really only good for determining historical patterns, while the sensors in general were less effective due to existing battery performance and other gaps in technology.

“However, advances in battery technology today and improved communication stacks mean there are more capabilities and options available to farmers. Connected sensors can now update data in near real-time, GSM, 5G, wireless or satellite networks. This allows farmers to access up-to-date information that enables much more effective decision-making. I consider this to be a new paradigm for agriculture,” he suggests.

There are a number of key areas he identifies as important agricultural segments, where IOT can have a significant impact.

“To start with, livestock monitoring with individual animals tagged with IOT sensors can help the farmer in a number of ways. It can assist in looking for threats, determining location, enabling recovery, providing history, ensuring disease control – early isolation of a diseased animal is vital to saving the rest of the herd – and even to monitor feeding and drinking patterns.

“Soil health monitoring is another benefit. Farmers can check moisture levels, soil and air temperatures, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) levels, and identify and manage their soil from the top layer to below the root. This helps to reduce waste and increase crop levels, by diagnosing and responding to problem areas rapidly.”

A third element is environmental monitoring, where the sensors can accurately and remotely measure rainfall across different parts of the farm, enabling more efficient irrigation scheduling and reducing water consumption. It can also help to reduce the loss of nutrients that occurs with overwatering. Furthermore, thresholds can be set to deliver alarms if there is a change in water quality, dam, river or channel levels, air pressure, humidity or anything else that may impact broadly on the agricultural environment.

“More than this, though, it is also effective for asset management – providing a location for the assets, as well as mitigating threats and ensuring recovery. Another strong use case is in regard to security, whether this is related to fences, roads, gates or any other access points, these sensors can alert the farmer in advance of potential threats.”

“Data analytics and IOT makes farming – generally considered to be highly dependent on weather and other conditions – that much more predictable. The more data the farmer is able to gather, the easier it becomes to track the state of the business in general, and more specifically, to improve food quality and quantity, along with delivery, all while remaining confident that they are making the most accurate and applicable decisions,” he concludes.

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