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IoT and feeding the world

featured IoT

Posted on September 13, 2016

3 min read

Technology, and specifically the Internet of Things (IoT), offers the potential to dramatically change the agriculture industry. Chief Scientist Hugh Bradlow looks at how the IoT could enable us to automate agriculture, ensure food integrity and increase yield.

Agriculture is under immense pressure: we already have about ¾ of billion people living in extreme poverty[i] and by 2050 we shall have 2 billion more mouths to feed[ii]. At the same time, environmental pressures are not only limiting the potential growth of agricultural land, but also the resources (particularly water and fertilisers) we need to grow crops and livestock. We have no option but to do things differently.

Let us envision farming in 20 years’ time.  Global satellite constellations with multi-sensory systems could continuously survey all arable land. Big Data, using the sensor information from farmlands across the world and the region, could determine the type of crop to plant in each field and exactly when to plant or harvest it. Genetically-modified crops with attributes that meet consumer or producer needs (e.g. low water usage, disease resistant) or give much greater yield, may be planted by an autonomous robot with seeds going exactly where the data analysis has determined they need to be.

Plant growth may be surveyed by the satellites overhead and augmented by autonomous drones flying over the field with additional sensors (e.g. LIDARs to determine the plant canopy). Robots (or drones) could respond to the overhead analysis by dishing out exactly the right amount of water, fertiliser or pesticide for each individual plant according to its precise need (hence the term ‘precision agriculture), minimising the use of resources per ounce of output.

At harvest time, autonomous machines could reap the crops and automatically dispatch them in self-driving trucks to food processing facilities. Big Data could allow us to track each crop throughout the process from the farm to the dinner plate and consumers could potentially tell by touching the packaging of their food with their smartphone where it was grown and everything about its journey to their gullet.

Labour and human limitations (e.g. ability to see at night, work in rain, cold, etc) would be no impediment to production which would give greater output.

So what about the limitations on agriculture land? People are already pioneering indoor farms[iii] which are capable of shrinking land use more than 60 fold through the use of sensors to monitor nutrients and controllable LED lights to create optimal growing conditions.

I am optimistic that with the application of technology we shall successfully feed 9.5bn people with much better nutrients than many are getting today.

Telstra is investing in NB-IoT technology which can provide up to 5 times the coverage reach from any 4G site, greatly expanding our 4G footprint especially around the fringes of that coverage. This unlocks opportunity for all Australians particularly in agriculture.

[i] https://ourworldindata.org/world-poverty/
[ii] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
[iii] http://theinstitute.ieee.org/technology-topics/life-sciences/indoor-farms-could-revolutionize-agriculture