IoT in agriculture—maximise yields and reduce waste

Internet of things (IoT) in agriculture

Over 1.3 billion tons of food produced is wasted each year. In fact, around 17% of food never even leaves the farm—failed crops, blemished fruits and spoiled meat all end up in the bin. At transportation stage a further 16% is lost. This all translates into a huge loss of potential revenue for farmers, increased strain on an already stretched environment and added cost for consumers at the till. And we’ve not even factored in wastage in the shops and at home.

In a world that sees nations and societies struggling with famine, poverty and drought, something needs to change—and needs to change quickly. The Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that global food production will need to increase 70% to meet demand by 2050.

Harvesting crops IoT

To the rescue comes the internet of things (IoT)—the global saviour. Often banded around as the core to smart cities, judging by early adoption it seems more likely to lead to smart countrysides. The internet of things is essentially a network of devices embedded with sensors and connectivity for data exchange.

What is IoT?

But can that help farmers? Could Alexa tell Old McDonald when his peaches are turning mouldy? Could Daisy become the smart dairy cow—more productive (and reproductive) with bio-markers and telemetric analysis? Yes, yes and yes. In fact, these technologies already exist.

IoT for livestock

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GB2503447A - Tail Mounted Birthing Sensor by MooCall

GB2503447A - Tail Mounted Birthing Sensor by MooCall

MooCall, an Irish company have patented a tail sensor that claims to reduce mortality rates in cows by 80%—in the UK that equates to potentially 128,000 cows saved from birth-related complications annually. Most cattle are through their paces with pedometers these days—ensuring they are getting enough exercise (identifying potential illnesses from sedentariness) and looking for signs of oestrus (peak fertility for insemination).

Dutch agricultural innovation specialist, Lely, has been working on robotic milking systems for around 25 years. Cows choose when they want to be milked, in the absence of human supervision. The latest developments can now automatically identify abnormalities, such as mastitis, at source. Action can then be taken to remedy and avoid potential contamination of larger batches further down the production chain.

IoT for plant and soil management

Plant and soil monitoring has serious potential to provide high return on investment for arable farmers. Key IoT advances already in action include sensors for soil moisture, nutrients and air quality. These sensors can control water usage for optimal plant growth and efficiency, help determine fertiliser requirements based on soil chemistry, optimise planting and harvesting scheduling and keep an eye on the weather.

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Key topics and sub-topic word wheel for “soil analysis” patents

Key topics and sub-topic word wheel for “soil analysis” patents (source: PatSnap platform)

By harnessing the power of mesh network technology, multiple devices can relay information back to a central hub—allowing remote effective communication over large areas of open land. Interdigital, Intel and Qualcomm are just a few of the big names developing tech to improve narrow band IoT networks.

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Cell graph of keyword density for players developing wireless mesh networks

Cell graph of keyword density for players developing wireless mesh networks (source: PatSnap platform

With all this data being collated, there needs to be an effective front-end application (user interface) that makes sense of all this data—and allows it to be utilised effectively by farmers. Farm managers can then deploy resources to the areas that need attention based upon data—not intuition. Effectively this should help maximise yield and minimise wastage.

Smart tractors

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US9891629—Autonomous robotic agricultural machine and system thereof

John Deere’s patent US9891629—Autonomous robotic agricultural machine and system thereof

Autonomous vehicles might be the future on the roads, but self-driving tractors have been doing the rounds for years. Using GPS navigation technology and built in sensors, companies like John Deere and Caterpillar are developing these ground-breaking machines. These autonomous tractors and combine harvesters can provide exceptional accuracy in planting (reducing seed cost) and free up workers for other tasks (redeploying staff for efficiency). Plus, they won’t need a toilet break every few hours. They could also potentially allow for work to continue after dark—increasing the working day, particularly useful over winter.

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Caterpillar and John Deere and leaders in autonomous tractor patenting

Caterpillar and John Deere and leaders in autonomous tractor patenting (source: PatSnap platform)

Obviously fully-autonomous tractors are going to need a bit of trust to be set off on their own—the potential risks of unsupervised farm machinery needs to be mitigated. For now, human monitoring is required, but this is likely to change once autonomous vehicles start to make their way onto our roads.

The automation and controls IoT integrations provide can also ensure that produce is kept in optimal condition along the entire food chain including storage and transportation—but it isn’t a fail-safe. Crops and animal produce, under the watchful eye of innovative multidevice tracking/monitoring systems, will benefit from in-depth analytics. Understanding the analytics and building a reliable failure-prediction setup are essential next steps. Maintaining observations and having controls in place allow for risks to be effectively monitored and minimised—from farm to fork.

IoT IP overview

IoT—internet of things IP overview