Agriculture and the Internet of Things

Posted on 21st October 2013 in agriculture, environmental, Internet of Things, M2M, management

I’m particularly interested in how very traditional businesses will make the transition to the Internet of Things (Exhibit A: see my post from last year about the incredible way the Union Pacific Railroad has been able to switch to “predictive maintenance” by stringing sensors all along its tracks).

What could be older, and more basic, than agriculture?

Lance Donny, the founder and ceo of On Farm Systems, gave an overview of the potential of the Internet of Things to radically increase productivity and cut costs in agriculture at last week’s GigaOM Mobilize conference, saying that agriculture is a “sleeping giant,” when it comes to real-time data.

At present, the industry is handicapped by the high cost of sensors — they can run hundreds of dollars apiece — and lack of infrastructure — there’s no wi-fi, and, more often than not, bandwidth on the farm is limited.

Despite that, On Farm and other firms in the field (ooh, bad pun) are already helping farmers, especially with the critical issue of managing water use. He said there are already 14 million “connected farms” in the US and Europe, and by 2020 there will be 70 million connected devices on farms (interest in the technology is also increasing in developing nations.

Donny mentioned that a big issue with really serving farmers’ needs is that since they’re operating in a moving tractor, “you can’t give them too much data,” but must pay a lot of attention to the user interface, and only give them limited amounts of actionable data.

This “precision agriculture” yields tremendous volumes of data, and one of the problems facing IT firms in agriculture is that there are no common platforms (On Farm uses ThinkWorx), so adding a new data source from another provider requires contacting them directly and then connect to their API.

He said that reducing water usage by pinpointing when it is needed and how much is the biggest challenge, pointing out that 70% of fresh water usage is for agriculture —  even a 5% reduction in use could have tremendous implications not only for farmers, but a world with inadequate water supplies.

Donny said that Monsanto’s recent purchase of Climate Corp., which underwrites weather insurance for farms, for nearly a billion dollars “started a data war” in agriculture. He said that the goal will be to combine enough real-time data so that farmers would have 90% or more accurate 5-day weather forecasts in order to manage water better.

If the IoT is emerging as a priority for as basic an industry as farming, can other mainstream businesses be far behind?

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