Real-time disease monitoring unearths power of IoT in agriculture
Real-time disease monitoring unearths power of IoT in agriculture

Real-time disease monitoring unearths power of IoT in agriculture

A new IoT solution, enabling real-time disease monitoring of crops, sees air sampling equipment combined with cellular connectivity and cloud services to boost yields.

Crop infections from pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and fungi have been an issue for farmers ever since we started leaving our hunter-gatherer origins behind and putting down roots. They damage plants, impact quality and limit yield – sometimes devastating whole crops, when they go unchecked.

In the face of an ever-growing global population, agriculture must tackle the daunting task of feeding ourselves sustainably. Current projections indicate that food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050 to meet these needs. The IoT stands to play a huge part in achieving this goal.

Currently, over one billion people face malnutrition due to poor food supply and around twice that lack the nutrients and vitamins required to meet their daily needs. The causes behind the decline of productive agricultural land are multifarious – but the damage caused by pathogens plays a key role, causing 20 to 40 percent of crop losses. Wheat, the source of our bread and pasta, regularly falls prey, suffering around 50 percent losses as a result.

How IoT can boost crop yields

Undoubtedly then, disease monitoring and prevention is central to enhancing yields, Current lab-based techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction [PCR], immunofluorescence [IF] and fluorescence in-situ hybridization [FISH], are expensive and time-consuming.

A new collaboration between scientific equipment producers Burkard, Eseye’s global cellular connectivity and Amazon Web Services [AWS] IoT has created a framework for combatting the problem. Their monitoring solution provides constant air-quality analytics and an early warning system that allows farmers to take targeted action.

Burklard have been in the business of designing and building air samplers for agricultural research since 1953. Their latest product, the Automatic Multi-Vial Cyclone Sampler was developed as part of the UK Government’s Innovate UK project. It offers real-time rapid detection of airborne spore and particle matter, while low energy consumption allows it to be solar powered.

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From the field to the cloud

The Auto Samplers reside in the farmer’s fields, remotely collecting and analysing spores with what’s known as a LAMP assay – a low-cost, single tube technique for the amplification of DNA. This data is communicated back to the farmer using Eseye’s AnyNet Secure global cellular connectivity and stored within AWS cloud services.

The Eseye Hera 604 (with add-on logger functionality) stores the data and publishes it to AWS. This cloud-based service reduces the need for expensive in-house infrastructure. AWS IoT Gateway tools also do the mathematics behind the forecasting and provide the means to quickly analyse data at scale – allowing farmers to easily see which fields are at risk and treat their crops.

The setup provides farmers with instant access to tailored information from their own fields and complete control over that data. Until now, other solutions may be positioned over 100 miles away from their crops, making farmers reliant on disease forecasts and general predictions. Given the localised nature of pathogens, there is no guarantee the data applies to their own fields.

This means that farmers could be unnecessarily spraying their crops, or neglecting to when needed. Ensuring that pesticides are used as required reduces waste, increases productivity and benefits the environment.

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What this means for agriculture

“We are finally giving farmers an answer to their concerns over the ramifications of crop disease,” explains Stuart Wili, managing director at Burkard. “This not only provides peace of mind, but the solution also supports the environment and saves precious time, resources and ultimately money.”

“Looking to the future, we plan to roll out the technology across the globe, particularly in developing countries, where the importance of farming is far higher, and therefore the need to prevent disease to ensure a healthy crop is even greater.”

Historically, Burkard used a general modem and SIM card to send alert texts to farmers. The unreliability of rural connectivity presented signal issues, meaning they were constantly changing providers. With AnyNet technology, users can connect to up to 440 cellular operators across 190 countries.

“With the AnyNet Secure SIM, farmers don’t need to rely on single local network coverage, which often can’t be guaranteed,” says Stuart Wili. “Instead they can be assured accurate data from the field is being securely and accurately transmitted back to the server, without any concern over connectivity, the AnyNet Secure SIM will utilise any and all connectivity available.”

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Future of real-time disease monitoring

Paul Marshall, chief customer officer was eager to emphasize the impact the collaboration could have on disease monitoring: “Eseye’s work with Burkard and AWS is a prime example of the range of economic, social and environmental benefits which can be reaped through IoT.”

The internet of things is transforming agriculture, helping to create near-perfect growing conditions, monitor machinery and oversee animal welfare. There are myriad opportunities to record data and empower farmers to make informed decisions.

Beyond the arable landscape, the impact of real-time disease monitoring could have a tremendous impact on healthcare. Newly developed DNA/RNA-based affinity biosensors, not unlike that deployed by Burkard, use nucleic acid fragments for pathogen detection.

The identification of specific DNA sequences could play an important role in the future of clinical human disease monitoring and environmental preservation, alerting us to the presence of disease before symptoms appear – prevention rather than cure.