Farmers are leading the way with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), but do they need ‘precision farming’ to ensure global food security?
“We need to achieve long-term, sustainable global food security without causing environmental damage.”
This was the call to action from Richard Green, head of engineering research for the National Center for Precision Farming, at the Smart Summit London late last month.
With a warning that we face an expected global population of nine billion by 2050, Green also spoke of the need to build homes, roads and other important infrastructure. All of this means we will lose land for growing crops, and the end result is that we will need to grow more food with less.
Precision farming – how does it work?
Green’s solution: precision farming – a management concept born out of the advent of global position system (GPS) and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology.
This method is based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops. The point is to define a decision support system for management of entire farms, with the aim of optimizing returns while preserving resources.
“It’s a solution that is both sustainable and economic,” he claimed.
Green’s argument, following years of research, is that Precision Farming — or satellite farming as it is sometimes known — can give farmers more control of the IIoT.
By using satellites precise locations in a field, farmers gain ‘better’ data on plants and insight on methods that work well. With better information, plants, and technology, farmers can sustainably improve yields and profits while optimizing the use of resources.
“Using robotics and autonomous vehicles [with in-built GPS], we are trying to treat each plant individually. We haven’t got there yet but that’s the aim.”
Farmers and the IIoT
It has been well-documented that farmers are already using Internet of Things (IoT) technology to great effect, in some parts of the world. So are they doing it right?
According to Green: “Today, farmers complain that they have too much data and don’t know what to do with it. Tomorrow they will realize they have too little and that what they do have isn’t good enough!”
Instead of accruing more data for the sake of it, Green is trying to encourage farmers globally to be more precise with their data accumulation. Everything must be geo-tagged so it can be linked to a precise location.
His goal is to build a ‘giant data cloud’ from farms and businesses across the world. In theory, farmers would then be able to access this database to ask questions and make better informed decisions for how they grow their own produce.
As an example, Green suggested that precision farming could help farmers see what would happen if they changed the date of farming, and how that affects a yield. They could also see how much ‘each square meter of the farm will make in profit if they incorporate data analytics.’
Targeting developing economies
“Small marginal gains are possible, which increases our ability to adapt to climate change,” he notes.
Whether the gains would be as great in more advanced countries is questionable. In the UK, where the best farmers can yield 10-12 tonnes per hectare, efficiency could improve slightly, Green admits.
What he’s really excited about, though, is the potential for developing countries. These are countries that produce 1-2 tonnes per hectare, ‘so the opportunity is huge’. If data analytics can help farmers in developed countries to just double their yield, that is still ‘incredibly significant’.
The problem Green and his team face is that many different parties are invested in precision farming, but they are not yet working together. A large part of his role is to encourage them to collaborate.
“Only by all of us coming together, can we actually make it work.”
Another major factor is whether or not the developing countries Green spoke of actually have the money and the capability to invest in the upfront costs of IIoT technology without support. There is already a major food shortage of in some parts of the world, so while the IoT will be useful for some countries in time, there are others that need a solution today.