February 10, 2017

Growing food from big data

How the Internet of Things will revolutionise farm productivity.

How the internet of things will revolutionise farm productivity

There’s a new phenomenon taking the world by storm and that’s the Internet of Things – or IoT as it’s known in the tech industry.

Smart sensors are connecting everything around us, from the cars we drive to the buildings we live in, and more devices are coming online every day.

The last place you’d expect to find internet-connected devices, however, is wading through the mud and sand of a remote Tasmanian estuary.

Dotted between the salt marsh and seagrass of the wetlands near Hobart, these tiny sensors quietly go about their work sending out real-time data to oyster growers and researchers.

This is only the beginning, according to Tasmanian start-up The Yield, as they embark on their mission to revolutionise agriculture in Australia through their army of “things”.

Pearls of wisdom

Tasmania’s oyster industry is reaping the benefits of IoT technology through applications designed to dramatically improve productivity in the $26 million local industry.

Oysters are filter animals and absorb whatever is coming downstream, good or bad, so it’s up to food safety regulators to close harvesting when rainwater washes in unwanted contaminants.

Previously, local growers and regulators had to rely on rainfall gauges to decide when to close harvesting, but with an estimated 30% of closures deemed unnecessary, these measures were having a significantly detrimental effect on productivity as well as staff rostering.

The Yield’s solution lies in providing predictive analytics to growers and regulators through an online tool with a simple user interface so they can make more informed choices about closures.

The “things” within The Yield’s system in Tasmania are salinity, temperature and depth sensors placed within local estuaries, but the magic of the system comes from combining the data from these sensors with publicly available temperature, barometric pressure and tidal data.

By taking highly accurate tidal signatures and measuring salinity at a single point, the system is able to accurately predict the local salinity as rainfall flows through the catchment.

Another problem is that oysters grown in Tasmania are predominantly Pacific oysters, which are susceptible to the Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS). Whilst not dangerous to human health it is lethal for oysters. POMS wiped out nearly $12 million of produce from the local industry earlier this year.

Research on the virus indicates that outbreaks are related to increased water temperatures, which is another area where The Yield has been able to provide value to growers, regulators and researchers.

Cutting red tape

Founder of The Yield Ros Harvey says the real value of their IoT system is its ability to extract helpful information from the data in multiple ways.

“People tend to take new technology and apply it to an existing business model to achieve marginal uplifts in productivity or efficiency, which is fine, but that’s not what we’ve set out to do with The Yield,” Harvey says.

“For example, in the oyster industry we’ve taken a knowledge infrastructure and used it to provide digital solutions for growers to improve on-farm productivity. However, we’ve also created a new digital solution for food safety regulators to use the same knowledge for administering their own food safety closures while also providing data sets to researchers so they can create new knowledge more efficiently and we can create pathways to rapid commercialisation.”

This is the thinking that has also led to Harvey to found with Dr Mike Briers, the Food Agility consortium that works with researchers and corporate partners such as the National Australia Bank to use digital technology to improve productivity in agribusiness.

With a food industry in Australia that’s heavily influenced by safety standards and compliance to retain its reputation for quality produce, Harvey believes IoT technology can greatly reduce the costs of compliance when it’s applied to an industry at scale.

“It’s difficult to make a case for investment in IoT in single-use cases within agriculture, as the real benefit lies in how the data is circulated and used by multiple stakeholders to create value.

“Obviously this creates concerns about data sharing but these are more governance issues than technology issues so the challenge is to find industries which are willing to create new business models around IoT-driven insights.”

The smart farm

IoT technology is so prolific that research firm Gartner estimates there are a whopping 6.4 billion devices already connected globally, with an additional 5.5 million coming online every day.

The data provided by this new army of “things” has widespread implications for every industry, but its application is promising to have a profound effect on agriculture in particular.

The next frontier for The Yield’s IoT systems will be within intensive irrigation through sensors that remotely deliver real-time microclimate data about a range of parameters like soil moisture in catchments or farm-level data on leaf wetness, humidity, temperature and photosynthetic light.

While there are often weather stations used within agriculture, they usually push out data in old style file formats.

“Legacy systems within agriculture have relied on devices known as loggers that pump out data files, but without uniquely identifiable IPv6 [Internet Protocol version 6] addresses for each sensing point, these systems aren’t scalable for analytics in the same way that genuine IoT systems are,” Ros Harvey says.

Smart sensors on farmland can notify farmers in real-time about moisture levels and the watering needs of the crop. Growers can use this information to trigger action by remotely switching irrigation on and off for different crops, depending on the real-time need for irrigation, the level of water available and predicted weather patterns including rain.

Irrigation in agriculture currently uses about 70% of global freshwater, so technology that can limit overuse will obviously have significant benefits for growers as well as the environment.

For Australian farmers plagued by drought in recent years, the ability to make smarter use of water will enable them to continue growing the high-quality produce that consumers expect.

With the UN predicting that food production will need to increase by 70% before 2050 to cope with an additional 2.3 billion people, the uptake of IoT technology in agriculture could be a key part of the solution for feeding a growing planet.

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