The first agricultural revolution took place from 10,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE, when humans transitioned from a nomadic society relying on hunting and gathering to one more focused on settled, stationary farming. During the 17th-19th centuries, the British Agricultural Revolution was supported by inventions like the Cotton Gin and Seed Drill, increasing crop production and decreasing work loads. In the 1800s and 1900s, tractors, chemical fertilizers, and grain elevators further increased crop output and efficiency.
Fast forward to today and the Internet of Things is positioned to start the next major agricultural revolution. In 2050, the world will need to produce 70% more food than it did in 2006 to adequately feed our increasing population, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Farmers will have to embrace new technology like precision farming and livestock monitoring to meet the growing needs of our society. Below, we’ll dive into the different types of IoT technological innovations developing in the agriculture industry.
Precision farming involves using sensors to collect data about anything from soil quality and irrigation levels to crop growth and fertilizer needs. IoT systems gather all of this data and use algorithms and pattern-recognition to inform farmers of things like each patch’s irrigation and pesticide needs, overall crop health, and estimated harvest date. The systems even tap into weather data to reduce irrigation costs by leveraging rain predictions in the water schedule.
A new branch of precision farming is vertical farming, where crops are grown indoors in stacked columns. In vertical farming, every aspect of the environment can be controlled and remotely monitored, creating a connected environment that can produce 10 times as much food per year as a regular farm of comparable size. Plenty Inc.’s 50,000 square foot vertical farm in San Francisco has 7,500 infrared cameras, 35,000 sensors, and can produce 2 million pounds of lettuce in one year. The data collected on plant growth, temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, and more is used to continuously tweak the environment and increase crop production and efficiency.
Precision and vertical farming both have the potential to increase and localize produce production, which could have an incredible effect on not only the agriculture industry, but also the shipping and grocery industries.
Similar to precision farming, IoT livestock monitoring solutions collect data on livestock and their environment to enable farmers to make informed decisions. Livestock monitoring systems on the market include solutions for cattle, swine, milk, and more and are projected to be worth 952.7 million USD by 2022.
Some systems focus on providing the vitals of the cattle, their location, and body temperature. One company, Moocall, helps farmers track pregnant cattle that are about to give birth. The sensor is mounted on the tail of the cow and can alert a farmer 1 hour before active birth. Vital Herd has created a sensor in pill form that is ingested by cattle and that can track their core temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate for the entire lifespan of the cow. Other companies are producing smart troughs, smart feeding systems, and stable and farm monitoring systems that provide real time data and make farm management easier.
Two of the biggest challenges for farms are finding skilled laborers and managing the high labor costs that come with them. In 2016, 30% of the berry crop in California wasn’t harvested due to a lack of labor. During harvest, time is extremely valuable and it can be costly if the farm misses the harvest window. Autonomous tractors allow for 24-hour automated harvests that increase efficiency and output while decreasing labor costs.
On top of harvesting, autonomous tractors can perform seeding, planting, and tilling of the fields and can be controlled remotely using tablets and computers. A farmer could have a fleet of tractors managing their fields. There are two types of autonomous tractors: the first is driven by a human and followed by autonomous machinery, while the second is fully autonomous. Many different companies are producing tractors of both types, like Case IH and Bear Flag Robotics.
Drones have been slowly incorporated into farming practices over the past few years. There are many different ways drones aid farms today. For example, aerial drones produce 3D maps for soil analysis early in the growth process. Planting drones shoot pods with seeds and plant nutrients into the soil, increasing the uptake rate by 75% and decreasing planting costs by over 80%. Aerial drones equipped with infrared cameras can analyze crop health, irrigation needs, and create time series animations for a holistic picture of crop growth. As drones become more autonomous, the training and oversight required will lessen, lowering the barrier of adoption for farms.
The agriculture industry will have a diverse and growing need for IoT as the world’s population rises and the demand for food increases across the globe. These examples represent the new technology that IoT can contribute to the next agricultural revolution. As farmers gather more data and insights and different technologies take off, they will inform the direction of innovation and the future of agriculture.
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