Internet of Sheep – the benefits of Connected Agriculture
Agriculture has been one of the surprising earlier adopters of IoT concepts and implementations resulting in new AgriTech methods of farming. IoT meets the needs of many of the challenges farmers have in monitoring and tracking livestock and crops over large distances, especially for the larger arable farms.
There is also the challenge of retro fitting existing equipment and resources. Famers will only be able to adopt an IoT style approach if it can work with both existing and new equipment. Following the success of wearable technology to monitor human health, there is increasing talk about wearables for livestock. Understanding more about how livestock feeds and breeds enables greater proactive management of farms to control their costs whilst maximising their returns.
So what is next for agriculture?
Let’s stay on the topic of livestock. Ruggedised IoT sensor beacons enable the long term tracking of livestock. However one of the challenges is how to power these beacons with minimal maintenance. This is especially important when large herds are being monitored. The beacons need to be self-sustaining. For milking cows they can be recharged through inductive coupling when they come in for milking. The beacon can also enable the farmer to track and monitor the amount of milk the cow is producing. Internal monitoring is looking more at the food consumption of the animal and has similar challenges to those of implants in humans and the need for biomedical sensitive power sources.
What technologies are key to enabling this next stage in IoT for agriculture?
Livestock monitoring, for aspects like location tracking, need ruggedised, small, sealed units to enable them to cope with the environmental aspects of being constantly exposed to the weather. The sensor technology also needs to be able to support longer-range radio to cover the wider physical distances being monitored. The more complex the protocol that needs to be used then the more energy is consumed by the beacon. So the battery technology used needs to be able to:
- withstand a range of temperatures - sub zero for some farming locations
- have the ability to work in environments that include moisture
- support trickle charging so that it can be charged by small energy harvesters like solar
So how does arable benefit from this increased connectivity?
Arable has different challenges. It is field crop production that can benefit most from the remote monitoring sensor beacons can offer. Farmers are looking for beacons that they can fit once remotely in their fields to monitor water levels, soil ph, growth levels of crops without having to do regular maintenance or worry about the beacons running out of power and missing important data. Most sensing needs are in remote locations that do not readily or constantly have available power. The monitoring needs can vary throughout the growing season so sensing beacons may need to perform multiple actions dependent on the maturity of the crops.
In arable farming the reliability of the beacons is important. Energy harvesting from the environment is important to maintain the beacon’s function. One energy harvesting option is through small cm2 sized PV panels, which can be provided by companies like Sharp to enable regular communication, at minutes interval or less. Ilika and sharp announced a collaboration in December 2016 that is focused on the integration of ilika’s solid state batteries with Sharp’s PV panels. The following video gives details of Sharp’s small form PV panels.
The frequency of communication will vary dependent on the crop being monitored.
Whilst there’s still a long way to go for AgriTech and retro fitting existing equipment remains one of the biggest challenges, the benefits brought by IoT are driving it forward. Farmers will be able to access more data helping them make their farms, connected, smarter farms.