Connected Farming: A Guide for Agribusinesses
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In terms of connected technologies, in comparison with other global industries, agriculture is lagging behind. However, taking into consideration nowadays’ challenges in agricultural sectors, the demand for using advanced and sustainable technologies in farming practices and higher standards for crop cultivation and livestock production is growing. Data and connectivity are those drivers that can help optimize and increase yields, reduce water consumption, increase efficiency, and prevent potential issues. According to McKinsey’s research, the global gross domestic product could be accelerated by an additional $500 billion by 2030.
There are disruptive factors affecting the farming sector tremendously that must impel agriculture stakeholders to embrace connectivity-powered digital transformation. Here are the following ones:
- Growing demand for food. Regarding the UN predictions of the global population growth by 2 billion by 2050, and the corresponding need to boost food production, farmers have to leverage IoT-based farming solutions in their daily routines to overcome agricultural collapse.
- Unsustainable farm practices. Reduced use of chemicals would amplify the standards. For example, smart spraying technology can reduce pesticide use by more than 50%.
- Reduced water supply. By 2020, according to the UN, there will be a shortfall of water supply (40 percent) due to population growth, climate changes, and ultimately, water-intensive growth patterns.
- Environmental pressures. Climate changes and weather conditions affect crop life.
- Growing concerns over animal welfare. Connected farming can enhance the well-being of livestock.
Nowadays, businesses are looking for solutions allowing them not only to improve their return of investment and increase their profits, but also to be able to build greater resilience and sustainability. In terms of the agriculture industry, connected farming is a great way to obtain data for informed decisions, effectively forecast yields, and improve overall economics. Demand for all these benefits is high, however, there are obstacles in the total adoption of IoT and connected technologies in the industry such as the lack of necessary connectivity infrastructure. Therefore, the deployment of digital tools is performed slowly. Nevertheless, the pandemic crisis accentuated an even bigger demand for advanced digitized and automated IoT-based solutions.
What is connected farming?
The overwhelming global challenge like the growing population and the need to produce more food has exacerbated the need for farmers to shift their paradigms and adopt smart agriculture to enable higher crop yields and better resource utilization. What is connected farming or agriculture and how farmers can benefit from it?
Connected farming is a technological approach allowing farmers to constantly monitor and manage all agricultural processes and get a complete view of the entire farming cycle. IoT-based smart sensors transmit data to each other in the IoT ecosystem, allowing farmers to collect, sort out, and handle it from multiple sensors installed on the drones, equipment, and in the fields.
This data can be used, for instance, to identify soil moisture or to collect information on the crop state. Based on the acquired data without human intervention, farmers are able to improve resource efficiency, minimize expenditures and waste, be proactive in decision-making, and early forecasting to prevent possible equipment malfunctions or any other challenges and risks. So if you know the moisture level of the land, you are equipped with the data which will help you efficiently irrigate the land without additional water waste. Or for example, with IoT-powered sensors set up on drones that can take images, you will definitely know whether to use pesticides.
How does connected farming work?
To get the hang of the connected agriculture principle, it is important to consider how IoT works in general, covering technical facets of IoT systems such as IoT architectural layers, smart devices, IoT networks and getaways, middleware and IoT platforms, and applications.
Basically, connected farming or smart farming is based on the principle that sensors are embedded throughout every stage of the farming production cycle and on every asset. These sensors collect data and transmit it to a central platform (cloud-based system) for further storage and processing via a connectivity network (Bluetooth, WiFi, etc). Before data analysis, data is stored on private, public, or hybrid servers or cloud storage. Afterward, all the processed data is presented on the mobile/software application deployed in the framework of a particular farm setup. Accumulated with big data and AI algorithms, actionable insights are available for farmers to make better decisions.
In this section, we will outline four main IoT layers that explain how connected farming works:
It connects the digital environment with the physical one. The perception layer modifies electronic signals into digital data and vice versa. Via sensors, it is possible to collect the environment’s physical parameters (temperature, humidity) and transform them into signals to the IoT system. In order to achieve the result, actuators are located on a specific part of the device.
It connects smart things to the network, getaways, and cloud computing. There are two types of connection: 1) TCP or UDP/IP stack, and 2) getaways (software modules that translate data via a range of protocols/IoT networks). More about networking technologies we will cover in the next section.
This layer encompasses data gathering, storage, and data management. Via IoT platforms, this data undergoes three phases: Data aggregation. The primary goal at this stage is to sort out a large amount of diverse data presented in different modalities into structured data. In order to retrieve constructive insights from it, it is essential to filter data and store it in the most efficient way.
Data abstraction. Here, data is completed and ready for translating into insights. Data is consolidated from IoT-based and non-IoT systems such as CRM and ERP, reconciled in different forms and aggregated in one location.
Finally, via software, IoT systems translate data into business intelligence. There are different IoT applications that can be built on top of ready-made IoT platforms or customized IoT cloud-based solutions integrating with middleware: Business intelligence software Device monitoring
- Mobile applications
- Predictive analytics backed by ML and AI.
Farming technology and connectivity networks
Communication between the physical layer of devices and IoT architecture (cloud) is performed via the connectivity layer (mentioned above). In order to achieve this connectivity, there are different networking technologies available. Each of them has its own pros and cons in terms of speed, range, and power consumption. Typically, smart devices are connected to the Internet via an IP stack (internet protocol stack). However, this type of connectivity requires a large amount of power and memory from the connecting devices. Non-IP networks are connected to the Internet via a smart getaway and consume less power. Let’s see the options of wireless IoT networks:
WiFi and BLE relate to this type of IoT network protocol and are extensively practiced technologies for data-intensive IoT solutions.
- WiFi. This technology of wireless networking operates within a small area and requires high power consumption; thus, it is not so viable for large distributed environments with multiple access points connected to a power outlet. But for small areas, it is easy to recharge and operate. The smart home is a good use case applying this type of connectivity.
- Bluetooth. With low power consumption, BLE technology is widely applied for short-range communications.
LPWAN is a low-power wide-area networking technology that supports wide-range IoT projects such as smart buildings, smart cities, and smart agriculture. Within this IoT protocol, all types of IoT sensors can be connected to facilitate numerous applications communicating over large areas. Moreover, small inexpensive batteries (which can last for 10+ years) and low-power consumption are the main benefits your agricultural business can leverage in the IoT solution.
LPWAN network is considered to be one of the best IoT networks since it can support high densities of connected devices; however, it can send only a small quantity of data at a single distance which makes it suitable for use cases with high bandwidth.
Zigbee protocol relates to Mesh protocols which with short-range capacity, is suitable for mid-size projects requiring data transfers within close proximity. In comparison with LPWAN which can transfer a small quantity of data, Zigbee can handle bigger data transfers with much less power consumption (up to 65,000 nodes) over small areas. The peculiarity of Zigbee networking technology lies in a mesh protocol allowing each device to connect to the signal that is passed to other devices.
Cellular networks are considered to be the most reliable solutions for global scale. They provide high bandwidth IoT connectivity. There are two types of cellular networks:
- NB-IoT (Narrowband). Thanks to low-power consumption, NB-IoT is cost-effective technology, however, it has no full support for mobility but it still supports a massive number of connections with small data packages.
- LTE-M (long-term evolution for machines). It supports massive connection density and high-speed exchange of data and consumes low power. Enabling devices to communicate smoothly and directly with the cloud, LTE-M is a bit costly compared to NB-IoT.
Use cases of connected farming
Many aspects of farming are going to be transformed by 2020. However, the potential value of autonomous machinery and predictive analytics is not the same for all business sizes. According to McKinsey, large farms that are more powerful in terms of investing and are more incentivized to digitize their approaches will be faster to embrace connectivity technologies, since these technologies will likely be more readily available.
The future of farming is predicted to progress thanks to modern specialized equipment, wireless connectivity, and IT solutions in general. By 2023, the global agricultural IoT market is anticipated to reach approximately $30 billion.
Let’s see how IoT can be used in farming.
IoT wireless technology enables farmers to identify health issues of their animals in advance and prevent disease outbreaks and herd infections. Access to real-time analytics and stats allows them to adjust the nutrition and care of their animals accordingly. IoT chips and sensors allow farmers to measure blood pressure, temperature, and other indicators that are necessary to support the quality of animals’ health.
Furthermore, you can monitor animals’ location with precision farming solutions. For instance, in the Northwest of China, farmers managed to increase the annual revenue by 50 percent ($420 per cow) thanks to the NB-IoT-based Connected Cow project. Within this project, mobile-connected sensors were embedded on the cows to collect biometric data such as temperature, pulse, and daily movements which allowed farmers to significantly improve milk production.
So let’s summarise the advantages:
- Comprehensive tracing (you can remotely calculate your animals in each location).
- Health monitoring (you can predict disease and isolate an animal from the herd).
- Cost reduction on human labor thanks to real-time livestock monitoring (you have data about your animals at your fingertips).
- Enhanced living conditions (sensors can automatically adjust heating, cooling, and air quality to improve the well-being of your animals).
Through connected devices, farmers obtain extended opportunities to monitor and manage their processes remotely on a 24-hour basis without being physically present at their premises and fields. IoT-based systems which provide real-time data on weather conditions, humidity and nutrient state of crops, lighting levels, and much more, help farmers optimize their efforts and resources utilization.
Farmers can timely figure out the color or sugar content of the fruit, for instance, by monitoring crops’ characteristics via deployed sensors or drones. Therefore, they can determine precisely the best time for harvesting, and increase their revenue accordingly. Furthermore, if there are any deviations in the crops state, farmers can identify them beforehand, based on the parameters provided via sensors.
Also, with advanced monitoring technology, water consumption can be significantly reduced. IBM iFarming solution helps ensure the proper irrigation level to the fields by forecasting the watering needs, based on crop growth and local weather. As a result, 40% of water usage is reduced, 25% of costs are lowered, and 30% of productivity is increased.
Let’s break down the crop monitoring capabilities into the following subcategories:
- Aid pest management. IoT sensors provide real-time data on crop health and the presence of pests. Farmers can even get the data on the light energy released by a plant by using high-resolution sensors.
- Predictive analytics. IoT sensors provide in-depth predictive analytics based on the crop’s characteristics and changes. With this analytics, farmers are equipped with data they can use for accurate predictions, for example, crop harvesting time, risks of deviations, droughts, overwatering, yield volume, etc.
- Agricultural drones. Data collected by drones can help farmers not only monitor crop damage, or monitor progress, but also sprinkle pests, and even stream video from the field in real-time.
- Efficient water usage. Connected technologies enable farmers to measure moisture in the soil and adjust water consumption.
Equipment and Building Management
IoT technology gives you real-time visibility of your warehouse environment, which helps you precisely measure silo levels and tank conditions. You will never run out of stock again if your warehouse is equipped with chips and sensors. This solution allows you to carefully plan refill schedules and reduce last-minute and costly reorders.
By monitoring storage conditions, you are able to improve the shelf life of inputs and reduce losses. Moreover, if your building and equipment are permanently monitored, you do not run a risk of overconsuming energy which, in turn, can reduce your utility expenditures. And if you connect your equipment to predictive maintenance systems – you can identify malfunctions beforehand, prevent repairs, and extend machinery life.
Automated greenhouse systems enable farmers to aggregate meaningful data on micro-climate conditions and timing (humidity, CO2 levels, moisture, daytime/nighttime temperatures, solar radiation effects, plan health, air pressure, etc.). This data then is transmitted via connected sensors to the application or software where agricultural managers can view it in the form of analytics and reporting on dashboards to efficiently manage indoor farms.
Possessing such valuable information on climate figures, plant health, and preventive analytics, farmers can visualize it and make a solid analysis of the greenhouse life cycle and generate accurate predictions to enhance their business.
Remote monitoring of weather conditions gives farmers powerful capabilities to get real-time data which helps them make accurate decisions rather than rely on meteorology reports. Equipped with precise data on air pressure, rainfall, wind conditions, CO2 levels, etc., farmers are able to significantly optimize crop management, water usage, reduce expenses, and ensure a better life for their crops.
By collecting a huge amount of metrics on every facet of the field ecosystem round-the-clock, IoT systems provide agriculture businesses with rich data.
Benefits of connected farming
The abovementioned use cases gave you an understanding of how you can apply connected technology into your agricultural business and get value out of it. To structure this information we summarized it and outlined the main benefits of farming technology:
- Increased control over internal processes. By that, we mean, once you have data allowing you to make accurate predictions, you can better plan your production distribution without leaving it unsold.
- Real-time data from smart sensors. Data collected by IoT systems allow you to keep instant track of your equipment efficiency, plants’ and animals’ health.
- Enhanced business efficiency through automation. Utilizing smart devices and sensors, your multiple business processes become streamlined. Now you can irrigate or fertilize fields without human involvement or control pesticides states via drones.
- Waste and cost reduction. By monitoring crop and herd health, building and equipment conditions, you are able to make accurate data-driven decisions and optimize your expenditures on watering, power consumption, or even on treating your herd. Also it became a powerful tool in farm waste management and recycling.
- Enhanced production quality. All the above-mentioned advantages in total create the primary requirement of your business to maintain high standards and resilience of crop and livestock. Connected farming allows farmers to anticipate and avoid risks and challenges.
And as for challenges. Our clients are always interested in the risks and challenges each solution can contain. In the next section, we shed light on the main risks and challenges of connected technology in farming that hinder the mass adoption of smart agriculture solutions across businesses.
Challenges of deploying advanced connectivity
- Precision farming requires significant knowledge and investment
While big farming players are slowly deploying digital tools for precision farming, small agricultural businesses mostly lack the necessary connectivity infrastructure. And in order to set up necessary IoT architecture and sensor networks throughout the field, farmers need to make substantial initial investments. But to be incentivized to invest in new cutting-edge technology, farmers would want to estimate ROI from smart farming which is hard to do in the first phases.
Therefore, benefits from adopting digital technology in their business processes may seem not apparent from the beginning, which leads to uncertainty and fears. Additionally, lack of awareness makes farmers stand away from deploying IoT systems, hence it is of high priority to understand how connected farming works to proceed with implementation. Our IoT experts can provide you with all comprehensive guidance and consult your project idea tailored to your specific needs.
- Poor connectivity in rural areas
Despite today’s progress in connectivity, the issue of mobile network and satellite coverage is still a pressing problem in remote rural locations and in developing countries (Asia, Africa). In order to transmit large amounts of data, farmers need to handle internet connection in advance which again – leads to significant investments that are not possible for the majority of farmers.
Therefore, strong network performance and bandwidth speed are critical factors for any IoT system implementation. Without this, deploying sensors across the entire chain will be problematic.
- Many opportunities for data breaches
With middleware technology, multiple endpoints, sensors, devices, API layers, and the abundance of shared open-source data, an IoT system may be a “good” resource of data access to cyber hackers. Often third-party attacks are decentralized which makes detection of threats and issues more challenging. Since farmers prefer to purchase cheaper devices, they may be unsafe.
To prevent such security issues, expert software development companies prioritize tight security solutions and provisioning policies to help farm owners be closer to agricultural IoT.
- Technical failures can lead to damages
Even if IoT systems ensure high quality and real-time observation of the fields, buildings, and equipment, they still run the risk of breaking down or come with the downside. When, for example, certain sensors or hardware malfunction, farmers can experience serious losses or damages. For instance, if the watering system is down, the crop fields can be underwatered or overwatered. Due to power failure, all the system functions could come to halt, which can lead to serious consequences.
How to succeed at building connected farming software project?
Without a well-elaborated software implementation plan that aligns with your specific business needs, your project is prone to failure. Let’s briefly overview the main points that we stick to when developing software.
- Identify key goals. In order to kick off the project, it is essential to accurately determine why you need an IoT system and what value it will bring to your business. Specify the parameters you want to monitor and what problems have to be resolved.
- Assess the integration with your existing business systems. Building connected software does not mean you need to replace your legacy systems (CRM, ERP, etc). It is important to assess the compatibility of IoT systems with your current systems to avoid problems in the future.
- Adjust appropriate data transfer technology. As we mentioned in the section above, the selection of networking technologies depends on your goals and environmental possibilities. Based on speed, range, and power consumption, you can weigh the pros and cons of each solution and specify the best one for your project.
- Keep in mind power consumption needs and data collection frequency. Determine how often you need to receive information from sensors to your application to adjust the solution. Also, think over how your IoT equipment will be powered and if there is a sufficient power supply.
- Find a reliable software development partner with a professional team. It is no surprise that an expert team behind the project is the key to success. Assess the company you want to hire, evaluate their experience and previous projects they were involved in. Outline the main requirements and share them with the software development team so that they can provide you with step-by-step guidance and recommendations on how to proceed with the implementation.
If you still have questions related to the costs of IoT application development – here is a detailed guide for you.