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How IoT is Helping to Grow Agriculture

Farmer holding tablet computer with IoT data.

Data collected from devices at the edges of agriculture networks can make information like soil quality, crop growth rates, livestock health, equipment maintenance, and hyperlocal weather conditions available in real time.

July 30, 2019 - Like many other industries, agriculture has been adopting technology for a long time – there’s even an industry term for it: AgriTech.

But in recent years, connected and smart devices have increasingly played a role in making agriculture more efficient and economical – in other words, the Internet of Things is transforming farms in the same way that it has rewritten the rules for productivity in manufacturing, retail, and healthcare.

A ‘growing’ industry

Commonly called Smart Agriculture, it’s a growth industry by most accounts. Business Insider, for example, predicts that there will be 75 million IoT devices in agricultural applications by 2020, representing a 20 percent year-over-year growth rate.

What’s fueling this explosion in high tech ag? There are a handful of compelling use cases and applications for the IoT in farming.

First and foremost is the application of data to every aspect of the agriculture industry.

Using data to make decisions

Data collected from devices at the edges of agriculture networks can make information like soil quality, crop growth rates, livestock health, equipment maintenance, and hyperlocal weather conditions available in real time.

Farmers can use not just computers, but even their smartphones to remotely monitor all of this information remotely and use the data to make decisions about how to manage their crops and livestock.

Trying to predict the weather

Weather, in particular, is an ever-present concern for farmers, and that means that one of the most important use cases for Smart Agriculture has traditionally been monitoring weather conditions.

Many farms now employ their own connected weather stations as well as a host of sensors staged across crop fields.

There are a variety of sensors in use today, including ones that measure soil properties, moisture levels, pH levels, and soil nutrients.

Combined with the weather data, this gives farmers invaluable feedback about how to manage their crops.

‘Precision’ agriculture

Further, the data is enabling precision agriculture – in other words, the ability to manage costs, increase profits, and reduce waste through the greater control over production that all the data and connected devices delivers.

The IoT on farms often include GPS-equipped farming equipment to plant, maintain, and harvest crops with more precision, less fuel waste, and reduced equipment maintenance.

And precision agriculture is good for both the business and the earth – it lets farmers optimize the amount of resources they use, like water, fertilizer, and herbicides.

In one recent study by OnFarm, a Smart Ag vendor, of the effects of IoT on real-world farming, crop yield is reported to increase by 1.75 percent, energy costs drop from $7 to $13 per acre, and water use for irrigation falls by 8 percent.

A smarter future

The future promises some truly exciting ways that agriculture can get even smarter.

For example, drone use on farms is quite limited. But rather than just using drones for imaging – which gives farmers a birds’ eye view of crops to monitor their health cheaply and easily – it’s conceivable that computer-and GPS-guided drones could take over the dangerous and costly task of crop dusting.

Crop dusting requires flying just a handful of feet above ground level, putting pilots, planes, and property at great risk. There’s a precedent for giving this job to machines: in Japan, for example, drones are already shouldering a significant responsibility for dropping pesticides on rice fields.

Coming soon: the farmbots

And that’s barely scratching the surface. Future farms will increasingly make use of not just drones – robots in the air – but farmbots – robots on the ground.

IoT-controlled robots can be deployed to precisely apply fertilizer, pull weeds, and even deploy, maintain, and reset bug traps. That’s not sci-fi, either. Spensa Tech, for example, offers the Z-Trap, an internet-enabled insect trap that farmers can monitor from the smartphone.

With the world population continuing to grow, and with it, the need for sustainable, healthy foods to keep pace, Smart Agriculture will become ever more important.

That means the devices, data, and networks that comprise IoTs on modern farms will be ever more important to productive, profitable, and sustainable farms.

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