May 2018: IoT: The Next Farming Frontier

The future of food is a revolution in the making.

The IoT (Internet of Things) is significantly impacting the trajectory of the agriculture industry, and Jim Whitaker, co-owner of Whitaker Farms, a family-owned multi-crop farming operation in McGehee, Ark., says the impact will only grow—pun intended. “Agriculture has lots of opportunities for the younger, tech-savvy generation. This younger generation is also very concerned about our planet,” Whitaker says. “Farming is going to be the next frontier in the tech space. The opportunities are endless and have the greatest impact on our society and planet.”

Agriculture is the largest industry in the world employing more than 1 billion people and generating more than $1 trillion worth of food each year. Perhaps no other industry relies on the earth more than agriculture, and, ironically, no other industry impacts the earth quite like agriculture either. In fact, the percentage of land area dedicated to agriculture globally is estimated at about 40%, and, sadly, about half (52%) of this land is moderately or severely degraded, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). The FAO’s research suggests land degradation affects 1.5 billion people worldwide, in part by reducing agricultural productivity.

Agriculture represents the largest human use of not only land area, but also water. Monsanto,, estimates the ag industry uses up to 70% of Earth’s fresh water—a resource that should not be taken for granted. Climate change is creating new challenges for the agriculture industry, including hotter or colder than average temperatures, erratic precipitation patterns that leave some areas in drought and others drenched, and an overall increase in natural disaster activity.

But climate change is just one issue facing the ag industry. An expected surge in global population during the next several decades coupled with an expected plunge in the availability of resources like arable land and fresh water have farmers, growers, and producers wondering where to go from here. How will the food industry meet the most basic needs of this growing global population? Since dramatically increasing the amount of land and water used to grow crops isn’t an option, the industry will have to look for other ways to produce food more efficiently and sustainably.

“Farming is going to be the next frontier in the tech space. The opportunities are endless and have the greatest impact on our society and planet.” –Jim Whitaker, Whitaker Farms

Source: The World Bank

Source: The World Bank

Spotlight on Food Engineering

Could a solution to the food crisis be discovered in a lab?  

The consumption of meat products is a divisive subject. For reasons ranging from health and environmental sustainability to concerns for the humane treatment of livestock, many consumers choose to forego steak, pork chops, chicken strips, and other meat treats for a plant-based diet. As a result, the meat substitutes market, estimated at $4.63 billion in 2018, is projected to reach $6.43 billion by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets Research.

There’s just no getting around it: the production of meat for human consumption costs the planet a great deal. By some estimates, livestock systems occupy 45% of Earth’s surface area, and they contribute hefty amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to boot. Meat production is also a voracious consumer of fresh water.

Technology may help us achieve more efficient, environmentally responsible ways to feed a hungry world. Clean meat, also known as in vitro, cultured, or lab-grown meat, is grown in a cell culture outside of an animal, eliminating the need for most of the land and resources required to produce conventional meat.

Businesses like Memphis Meats, a San Francisco Bay Area-based startup, and SuperMeat, which has raised $3 million in seed funding, are part of this new frontier in engineering clean meat. Some day, thanks to these companies and others, consumers may be able to get their fill of juicy hamburgers and other meat products without supporting systems that wreak havoc on the environment. Memphis Meats, for instance, says its products will require up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land, and water than conventionally produced meat, while tasting just as good as the “real thing”. While, currently, concerns about the cost of clean meat are aplenty, the concept of lab-grown meat and its place in the future of food is certainly food for thought.

Source: MarketsandMarkets

A New Frontier for Tech       

Going forward, farmers will need to adopt new data-management systems at a faster pace, and Jim Whitaker expects the next big thing in agriculture will be analytics. “We will be forced to farm larger tracts of land while being more productive every year. This can only be accomplished with technology,” Whitaker says. “I will need to make multiple decisions at a time and will use analytics to give me the confidence to do so.”

Whitaker Farms leverages GPS technology on every piece of equipment to record data about actions in near-realtime. The business also relies on water-level sensing technology and IoT connectivity from PrecisionKing, and AT&T, respectively, to remotely manage rice fields’ water levels. After implementing the RiceKing automation solution, which remotely turns water pumps on or off as needed to maintain optimum water levels, Whitaker Farms reported a 60% reduction in water usage and a 20-30% reduction in pump energy usage.

Sam Eathington, chief science officer at Monsanto, and The Climate Corp., says one key value the IoT will unlock for farming is getting quality data to deliver insights that aren’t simply observational, but predictive. “For millennia, humans have been farming land with the best intentions, generational expertise, and a whole lot of elbow grease, but with relatively limited and narrow data,” Eathington says. “With the proliferation of sensors, smart tech, and imagery tools on the farm, we’ve already seen an unprecedented volume of data availability.”

As farmers gather and integrate more high-quality IoT data, Eathington says more owners are making their way toward effectively managing their agriculture businesses with prediction. “With connected fields running off of finely tuned, dynamic cropping models, farmers will—for the first time—be able to harness the power of data-based prediction to manage their operations,” he says. “We’ll see improved harvests, reduced reliance on natural resources, and more efficient supply-chain management and logistics. The implications are far-reaching and tremendously exciting.”

Global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and every one of these 9.7 billion people will need to eat. Evolving agriculture with the help of technologies like robotics, AI (artificial intelligence), and machine learning is one way society will rise to meet this food production challenge. For instance, the use of AI to inform decisionmaking in agriculture will offer many advantages, thanks to AI’s ability to draw on historical and current data sets to make the best decisions possible.

Autonomous farming equipment, which will simultaneously deliver more precision and require less physical labor, is also on the horizon. Alongside self-driving farm equipment, Eathington foresees robots capturing photos that track field health and even crop-protection methods that leverage drones to target weeds.

Salah Sukkarieh, professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the University of Sydney, says while agriculture is not “big data” yet, it will become so as the number of sensors increases on global farms. “The IoT process will also allow for all these sensors (to) connect with each other, providing data at an unprecedented level spatially and temporally, giving us new insights into how plants grow and how to maximize quality and yield,” Sukkarieh says.

IoT sensing, analytics, AI, and robotics have the potential to accomplish at least two critical things in agriculture: providing information that was not attainable before and taking on tasks that are time consuming or difficult for humans to accomplish. “Robotics will help collect large amounts of data and undertake tasks such as weeding, soil monitoring, and pest detection and eradication,” Sukkarieh explains. “AI will give the robot the intelligence to understand its environment and the automated decisionmaking process to undertake these tasks.”

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Preparing for the Future of Food

Manoj Karkee, associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University, says global agriculture challenges like a shrinking labor pool, a changing climate, and a spike in world population paralleled by diminishing farming resources will require innovative solutions. As these solutions become more robust and affordable, they will accelerate the current trend in agriculture toward automation.

“Involvement of people in farming has gone down to just 2% or so in (the) U.S. from over 90% a century ago. This trend will continue in underdeveloped and developing countries as farming technologies become more robust, accurate, and affordable,” Karkee says. “In developed countries like (the) U.S., some crops like fruit and vegetables—in general, what we call ‘specialty crops’—are grown with a lot of manual operation even today. For example, Washington State harvests more than 15 billion apples every year, one fruit at a time by a human picker. Such labor intensive and laborious tasks will soon be performed by robots with no or minimal supervision by human workers.”

In the future, more farming operations will be performed from offices rather than fields, leveraging robotic fruit pickers, drone-based solutions, and autonomous tractors and other vehicles. As machines become more capable, operators will interface with these machines remotely using IoT sensing and VR (virtual reality) technologies, similar to the way U.S. military personnel remotely operate unmanned aircraft systems from a testing, training, and development office in Arizona.
“These technologies also lend well into modular design to fit different farming scales and philosophies, which shows promise for adoption in not only the large, corporate farming industry in the U.S., but also smaller farmers in developed countries and potentially smaller, subsistence farming communities around the world,” Karkee adds.

From dashboards, to databases, to platforms, to SD cards, to wearable walkie-talkies, innovative digital products are coming to the IoT (Internet of Things) market faster than ever before. IHS Markit predicts the number of connected IoT devices will jump 12% on average annually, from nearly 27 billion this past year to 125 billion by 2030.

However, a number of challenges exist for the successful adoption of smart, autonomous technologies in agriculture. Margins in agribusiness are small, which can prevent the uptake of novel sensing, robotics, AI, and other technologies. Farmers carry the largest risk of natural disasters and other unavoidable setbacks, leaving many with the opinion that they can’t afford the technology or the risk involved in implementing it.

Resistance to change remains a hurdle in agriculture, and Internet accessibility continues to be a challenge in some rural regions. While resistance to change and Internet accessibility can be addressed, hurdles that will always exist in some form include the unpredictability of the farming environment and the complex nature of crop architectures, both of which pose challenges for the adoption of smart systems.

Data Drives Farming 

Peggy welcomes Sam Eathington, chief science officer of Monsanto and The Climate Corp., to the show. He says today farming is all about data and how you take that data and turn it into an actionable insight. Having grown up on a farm, he says there is lots of different data, but it is hard to use that data. One of the challenges growing up on the farm is every field is different. He explains that quality information is essential and then you need to know how to put it all together.

In addition to tackling hurdles that can be addressed, like cost of implementation, resistance to change, and Internet accessibility in rural areas, achieving maximum data quality and interoperability are of the utmost importance. “We’re already in an environment where data for one farmer’s field may be coming from—and coming through—several different tech vendors,” explains The Climate Corp.’s Eathington. “Having open data connectivity across elements is essential to make digital agriculture work.”

When it does work, a digital farm ecosystem will help construct an optimistic future for food production, perhaps even revolutionizing the ag industry as society knows it today. Data and all the different ways data can be used will be the driving force behind the exploration of this new farming frontier, and an IoT-enabled era in agriculture will thrive by applying smart solutions to both new and age-old problems.

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Look Who's Talking

Look Who’s Talking

Sam Eathington, chief science officer of Monsanto and The Climate Corp., joined Peggy Smedley to talk about how having grown up on a farm helped him understand the importance of data and the need to turn it into actionable insights. He explains that quality information is essential and then you need to know how to put it all together to get the most out of the soil every year.

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