Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) IoT technologies will make a significant contribution the agricultural industry by making precision agriculture more accessible.
Current State of Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture is a method of optimizing management of crops, orchards, vineyards, etc., by using data obtained with various technologies. Some examples are remote soil sampling by wireless sensors and GPS-based automatic steering on harvesting and planting tractors. The former technology gives insight into soil nutrition - indicating where to apply fertilizer and how to adjust irrigation. The former ensures that over (or under) fertilization and seeding is eliminated, and that both processes are executed in the most fuel-efficient manner.
This technology-intensive approach allows fine-tuned management of an enterprise exposed to water shortages and high fuel costs. Optimization from collected data is usually accomplished with the aid of a Decision Support System (DSS) - computer software which combines data aggregation, modeling, and analytics to assist in high-level decision making. Ultimately, precision agriculture allows farmers to make more with less and pass that savings to the consumer.
Research suggests that the benefits of precision agriculture are real. A study done by PrecisionAg in 2013 stated that corn growers reported average cost savings of 6.8% and average yield increases of 7.6%. These benefits came from better harvesting techniques, precision application of seed and chemicals, and optimization of fuel and labor. A 2016 market brief by PrecisionAg, however, indicates that these technologies are considered unconventional tools by many farmers, and that much of the technology is far in advance of its perceived value. Unfortunately, the models that provide the best optimization also require historical data, and that means farmers need to begin adopting precision technologies to gain benefit in the long term.
The same report states that wireless coverage for some of these tools is poor, and implementation of multiple tools is complex, both of which further stunt adoption of precision techniques. Advances in LPWAN IoT, however, will be able to remedy these issues - both in coverage and ease of deployment and use.
Importance of Precision Agriculture
Why struggle with early adoption of precision agriculture technologies? There are more than a few benefits. Here are some of them:
Optimizing labor and material (fertilizer, irrigation, fuel) use and boosting revenue by increasing yield. Not all regions were created equally. Remote sensors help build a better understanding of the specific environment a crop is planted in. More data, more often, will give you a clear picture of your farm’s needs.
Immediate awareness of environmental details. Near-real-time data allows you to respond quicker to changing conditions. This is of special importance in continental regions, a home to many large vineyards, where climate changes rapidly without the moderating effect enjoyed near large lakes and seas.
Improved planning through the collection and use of historical crop data. Here’s where DSS comes in. The ability to attain and digest large amounts of data is for computers - they are much better at detecting the patterns and correlations that could change how a farm is run. Vital data from sensors in the field will help build models that correlate end-results such as yield, produce quality, and sales with a crop’s physical conditions. The more data that is collected, the better predictive models become, and this allows forecasting that will give farmers an idea of what they will face in the future - and the time to plan for it.
Environmental preservation. By limiting water and chemical use, you also reduce chemical run off. For us, and the rest of the ecosystem, this means water that is safe for consumption and more abundant. In addition, fuel consumption is also reduced, and along with it, emissions.
LPWAN IoT Contribution
So far, we have addressed how the tools and data can benefit agriculture. The question is, how do you get that data? Some sources already exist - geographic and historical weather data - but what about the precision that was promised? This is where IoT technologies become relevant. To get vital near-real-time, localized environmental data, you need to have sensors placed in your fields. The information attainable is extensive: soil conditions like pH, organic matter content, nutrients and minerals, moisture; weather conditions like temperature, humidity, light levels, pollutant concentrations. All these metrics can be aggregated and plotted in relation to geographic data using GIS tools. The changes can be mapped, cycles identified, predictions generated. This leads to better use of resources, whether it be fertilizer, water, fuel, or labor.
Building a network of appropriate sensors doesn’t have to be difficult either. LPWAN allows low-data rate devices, such as sensors, to connect wirelessly with the long-ranges, and reliability, needed in farming environments. Such devices can also operate on unlicensed bands, like those used by cordless phones and microwaves, meaning no additional cellular costs and no problem with cellular coverage gaps in remote locations. These technologies are already on the rise by government entities with limited budgets and less tolerance for high-learning curves - and equipment costs and implementation difficulty are continuing to drop as these IoT technologies become more ubiquitous.
Precision agriculture allows for the most efficient use of resources and optimizes crop yields. It relies on data collected from your specific region - which can be processed with software to help you make the best decisions and predictions possible. Wireless IoT technologies with low-power and long-rage provide a complementary benefit to precision agriculture - an easy, cost-effective, and reliable way to attain vital data and ultimately, improve crop yields.