Real Time Communications Featured Article

How Real Time Communications is Making Farming & Food Distribution More Efficient

February 03, 2015

Farming continues to become more high tech, as crop and livestock operations supplement the use of the latest equipment and chemicals with network connectivity, sensor-based solutions, and even robotics to allow for more efficient use of water, lower labor costs, more targeted planting, and even more effective practices related to animal husbandry.

Precision farming is a term that surfaced more than a decade ago to describe how technology can be leveraged to allow for more informed planting, fertilization, irrigation, and harvesting practices. In fact, I wrote a precision farming article more than 16 years ago that talked about how some the world’s food suppliers were beginning to explore leveraging satellite technology and sensors to collect and map factors such as seed selection, soil type, weather, and yield history, and to use that information to adapt their practices to realize maximum yields and resource savings.

Some farmers already do precision farming today. And as the world’s growing population – which is expected to reach beyond 9 billion by 2050 – expands, more farmers will need to embrace new technologies like satellite-powered precision farming to meet food demand, Christian Radons of farm equipment company CLASS, said at the European Space Solutions 2014 conference in Prague.

Once the food is produced, the use of sensors and real time communications can help track its condition, environment, and whereabouts. That way distributors can more effectively ensure the food is fresh and safe for consumption once it reaches grocery stores, restaurants, and the consumer.

The widespread availability of computers, smartphones, and other wireless devices and sensors – and the cellular and satellite networks to connect them to enable batch and real time communications – is helping make all that possible. Advances in application development platforms and technologies should also help ease implementations on these fronts. There’s also been a recent realization in the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communications ecosystem that customers are looking for single solutions and suppliers so they don’t have to shop for and integrate the piece parts of their connected solutions. Consolidation of IoT industry players – which sell things like application development platforms, M2M connectivity, and sensors – is expected to help with that.

That’s good news given the complexity and costs of such implementations to date have often made them an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. A case study on the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences of Australia website talks about how farmers Will and Margaret Carmody use precision agriculture to plant and fertilize based on soil type, which varies across their property. But the couple had to piece together the solution themselves (which they started to do back in 2013), invested more than A$170,000 in hardware and information on the effort, and could use some help in interpreting and deciding how to leverage the data, according to the piece.

Among the smart farming products already on the market are Trimble’s GreenSeeker. This sensor can be mounted on booms on most sprayers and spreaders to provide instant fertilizer application for inputs such as nitrogen, and uses optical sensors to measure and quantify crop health. A company called McCrometer Inc. sells the CONNECT wireless remote monitoring solution; it enables farmers to do crop management and irrigation control from computers, smartphones, and tablets. Dacom of the Netherlands develops and supplies ICT and sensor solutions for farm yield optimization in more than 30 countries, and Orange Business Services provides Dacom with M2M managed services. Telit provides Telefonica with solutions to maintain crop temperatures by remotely covering or uncovering crops with greenhouses.

Meanwhile, HeatPhone and Vel'Phone from French IT firm Medria Technologies are helping farmers keep abreast of the rhythms of birthing-age cows, alerting them via the use of sensors and real-time communications when the animals display signs of being ready to deliver or prime for insemination. That way, farmers can go about their business rather than remaining stable-side. Smart Farm Apps of Ireland also has developed several smartphone apps to help people in farming; those applications include the ProCattle Breeding app and the Pro Grass Rotation app.

Smart farming technology and solutions are also being advanced in academic circles. The European Space Solutions conference last year recognized some of the recent work in this arena with an awards program. German Daniel Hege of Geisenheim University got top honors for his work on a solution that uses satellite-guided steering during cultivation of mixed vegetables to increase productivity by reducing planting gaps, and reduce time in the field. Second place went to a group from Harper Adams University that built a robot that uses GNSS technology to help plant seeds in wet terrain.

The Harper Adams University points to another potential emerging trend in farming that many people are talking about: driverless tractors.

Kinze Manufacturing Inc. is a pioneer in this space. The company in December announced that three farmers are now successfully using its autonomous row-crop solution and will test new functionality in fields through Illinois in the fall. Susanne Veatch, Kinze’s vice president and chief marketing officer, commented: “Our goal is to help increase productivity by allowing the farmer to accomplish multiple tasks at once and eliminate the need for skilled labor during harvest time.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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