Texting cows and talking fields

The Internet of agriculture is flourishing

Imagine getting a text from a cow which is about to calve or from a field to say it needs watering, while drones, smart machinery and mini ‘agribots’ tend to your crops. This scenario may not be too far away. Discover more about robotics in agriculture in the e-tech article, Farming (r)evolution.

Smart farming and IoT
Farmers can water crops using a smartphone app (Photo: www.iotupbeat.com)

Revolutionizing an industry

Farmers need to meet growing world food demands while grappling with the added challenges of limited provision of new arable land, climate change, rising energy prices and decreased availability of rural labour.

Fortunately, the Internet of Things (IoT) has already reached the countryside and opened up new ways of cultivating soil and rearing livestock. Open-source platforms are evolving rapidly, allowing farmers to collect, share, analyze and use data.

Smart farming technology is increasing productivity while saving time and money. It looks likely to boom, according to a report by Business Insider, which says that 75 million IoT devices will be shipped for agricultural uses in 2020, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20%. The smart agriculture market is expected to reach USD 18,45 billion in 2022, at a CAGR of 13,8%.

Why standardization is vital

The IoT integrates virtual complex information technologies, such as communication, networking, identification and security, with billions of “sensorized” and connected devices and systems. These then gather and share relevant data, often in real-time. Some examples include: agricultural machinery, building alarm systems, connected cars, dog bracelets, household appliances, insulin pumps, smart pill boxes and intelligent clothing. In order for the IoT to function smoothly, its components must be interoperable.

Several IEC technical committees (TCs) and their subcommittees (SCs) contribute towards achieving this. ISO/IEC JTC 1, the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) of IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), covers information technology.  

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 41: IoT and related technologies, serves as the focus for the JTC 1 IoT standardization programme, including sensor networks and wearables technologies. Standardization is fundamental in defining a common language and reference architecture that works for the diverse technologies and stakeholders involved. Subcommittee 41 is currently developing International Standards for these and for a framework of interoperability.

Precision farming from your phone

A growing number of smart farming applications bring together sensors, connected devices and farming facilities. Farmers are able to monitor and react to soil and crop health, machinery in use, animal behaviour and energy consumption levels, all in real time. Without sensors, none of this would be possible. IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and its SCs, develop International Standards for sensors and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) used in connected devices.

Connecting with nature

This 24 hour precision monitoring means farmers get more out of their resources and can operate much of the farm from a smartphone, anytime, anywhere. Advantages to them include:

  • Reduction in human error. Geographical coordinates of navigation and positioning systems record a field’s position, so that vehicles can be located and navigated to within a couple of centimetres of accuracy and plough perfect lines. Automated steering systems use GPS to show drivers which path to follow and also provide diverse steering patterns
  • Modern seed drills and planters are programmed to place seeds at the right depth and distance apart and are able to optimize seeding in the best places. Sensors measure the pressure on a depth guide wheel and adjust automatically to ensure planting depth remains accurate. Soil data and seed rates can be recorded simultaneously, using a satellite navigation (GPS) unit. This information can be used to produce detailed soil density maps
  • Crop fertilization, spraying and irrigation are tailored to give plants the right quantity or volume of nutrients and water and to protect them from pests. For example, adaptive irrigation solutions use cloud technology and sensors to grow more crops while using less water
  • Specific reports detailing information gathered about crops, soil quality and materials can be used for farm audits, insurance requirements, land leasing, or sale of the property

Welcome to the Internet of animals

The life of dairy and meat farmers (cows or sheep), entails a lot of administration. This includes recording births, monitoring health (weighing, illness, diseases and reproduction cycles), noting medicine and feed purchases and officially registering all movements of animals through sales, in compliance with regulations.

Farmers using smartphone apps can track every animal individually whether it involves registering a calf when it is born in the barn or filling out the official movement certification form as an animal is sold at market, in less than a minute. In the past, these tasks had to be done by post or from a computer back at the farm. Saving time and money, this technology allows farmers to demonstrate compliance and also offers efficient real-time herd management.

Wearables keep the herds happy

If illness or disease is caught and treated quickly, it can be stopped from spreading, which could have a drastic effect on milk yield. It all comes down to monitoring, with the aid of a wearable neck collar, how much time a cow spends eating and chewing. When the recorded time drops below average, it could signify the presence of any one of a number of common illnesses which lower milk production and in some cases, if left unchecked, could lead to death of an animal.

Equally, breeders who monitor the heat and movement of their cows using upper leg wearables can improve fertility management, so ensuring cows calve at optimum intervals, while maintaining the highest levels of milk production.

Given the rapid growth of wearables, which come in many forms (patches, bracelets, collars and ingestible and implantable materials and textiles), IEC TC 124 has been established recently to produce International Standards that will ensure the safety, reliability and interoperability of wearable electronic devices with other technologies.

Milk that talks

It is amazing what a drop of milk can tell you about the health of a cow. Sophisticated dairy machinery speeds up the milking of hundreds of animals and analyzes the milk at every session, in real time, without the need for heating it or taking samples. The content of fat, protein, lactose and other elements is linked to the cow’s well-being and the quality of the milk. The vital know-how contained in this daily analysis can reveal symptoms of a number of illnesses, which farm hands or vets can check and treat straight away.

Protecting farm management systems

The devices and networks used in IoT agriculture, such as automated vehicles and animal wearables, must be protected to ensure user safety and data privacy. The work of
ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 27: IT Security techniques, is directly involved in reinforcing data and network security in a wide range of applications, while ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 38 develops International Standards for cloud computing, where many smart farming applications store the data they gather.