Smart farming: Agriculture and IOT a natural match

With innovation being the common denominator, it's no wonder farmers are using IOT to improve yields, bolster cattle numbers and so much more.

Johannesburg, 03 Jul 2019
Read time 4min 40sec
Phathizwe Malinga, MD, SqwidNet
Phathizwe Malinga, MD, SqwidNet

The Kruger National Park is enormous. It covers nearly 20 000km2 and is home to countless animals: more than 1 000 lions, tens of thousands of elephant, buffalo and zebra, and well over 100 000 impala, to name a few. Tracking and monitoring the activities inside the park is a mammoth task, even unrealistic. But the Internet of Things (IOT) has changed that.

Today, the park’s staff can track animals and vehicles, monitor gates and much more, thanks to IOT technologies. Devices can sit in the wild for months, even years, without intervention, sending signals across a network that covers the park 100%. It’s a feat that even a decade ago was unthinkable, yet today is simply the beginning.

If IOT technologies can cover a behemoth such as the Kruger National Park, what can it offer for farms?

Farmers are demanding innovators

“We underestimate how much innovation happens on farms,” says Phathizwe Malinga, MD of SqwidNet. “There’s no standing for nonsense because farmers innovate so quickly. IOT is being adopted in that kind of almost rapid prototyping approach.”

Farming as a discipline is very open to technology. Improving yields, managing soil or bolstering cattle numbers requires an open mind for new techniques and innovations. But farmers don’t have the patience for bleeding-edge implementations: if it fails, it must fail fast. What they invest in must work well quickly, be reliable and show results. Anything less is a failure in this pragmatic world.

IOT is often the same. Whether it’s tracking a fleet or monitoring healthcare equipment, there is rarely room for prolonged POCs in the commercial IOT market. If IOT can perform well for farmers, it’s a testament to the technology’s resilience and reliability.

“There are many use cases already,” says Malinga. “Farmers use soil moisture monitors to avoid over-watering, even to ensure that the wheels of machines don’t get stuck. Many use borehole monitoring in real time for how the resource is being used. And we've got another channel partner who made what I think is the most elegant fence solution. It knows whether a fence is electrified or not, and is able to sense it for kilometres on behalf of the farmer. Farming IOT is already heavily in use.”

But how does IOT accomplish this in such demanding environments as farms? This is not a world where most technologies will last. Nor are farms overflowing with servers and other such technology components. Farms are also remote, so connectivity and support are valid concerns. How does the IOT market overcome these?

IOT for anywhere

There are several parties to every IOT ecosystem: the customer, the solution provider, the devices and the connectivity. Malinga further defines the ecosystem as the ABCD of IOT:

a) Application

b) Cloud

c) Connectivity

d) Device

The customer is a farmer, armed with a smartphone: the window to their farming information, generated by the IOT network. The solution provider delivers the service to the farmer. The devices are mostly hardy sensors distributed where they are needed: soil monitors, gate monitors, smart collars for cattle and so on. The connectivity is through an IOT network.

Infrastructure requirements for the customer are low, thanks to the cloud. The solution provider establishes an Internet connection between the farmer and cloud services, which in turn are fed data from the sensors via the network. In the past, farmers relied on GSM to transfer data from sensors, but this is cumbersome and expensive, and is not designed for purpose. Since today’s modern networks can rely on ultra-narrow, unlicensed spectrum, it easily covers dozens of kilometres from one base station.

“GSM works well for humans. We rely on data richness, whether that data is being used for voice or video or along those lines. That's how GSM evolved. Yet in the world of decision-making, decisions are not based on collecting all the information all the time, but on establishing context quickly. This is why an IOT network is a different paradigm to GSM.”

IOT devices are like an SOS signal: they don’t need to send heavy amounts of complex data and they don’t require a handshake to transmit. They just transmit signals and the network passes information to the cloud services, which then inform the farmer. Using a specialised IOT network also reduces demands on battery power. Devices can sit unattended for months and even years.

A farmer can start small; perhaps a few water sensors or a handful of collars to monitor the most precious livestock, from heart rate to geofencing. They can expand using the cloud’s consumption-based services. Existing infrastructure such as weather vanes can be integrated into the IOT ecosystem.

IOT works. That can be stated with confidence because it is demonstrably the case on farms. Here distance, environmental stress, costs and highly pragmatic customers have been putting IOT through its paces.

Farmers love IOT . So does the Kruger National Park. When powered by the right networks, no environment is too big, too demanding or too remote to not join the Industry 4.0 world.

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