• July 6, 2016

New MacDonald: Big Data and IoT in Agriculture

IoT is taking over the farm.

Although examples of enterprise applications using Big Data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are increasing, much of the discussion involving these technologies uses language like “on the verge of” or “in the future” to describe capabilities. By contrast, IoT is already having an outsized impact in an unlikely industry—agriculture.

Not long ago, IT was mostly foreign to the farm, but in the past decade, it has become indispensable to large-scale farm operations in the U.S., with mobile computing devices becoming as common as tractors. “Less than 10 percent of farmers had mobile phones or used the internet 10 years ago,” notes David Friedberg, founder of The Climate Corporation, a company that produces software for agriculture, in a Grist interview. “Now it’s over 90 percent, and about 60 percent of U.S. farmers use a tablet.”

In just the past few years, many farmers have deployed sensors that monitor equipment, soil moisture, and fertilizer and pesticide output. These IoT devices are embedded in irrigation equipment and tractors, and are placed under the soil. They feed data to cloud-based systems that farmers access via mobile devices.

Reaping the Rewards of Big Data

These applications provide more precise data about a host of factors, such as the efficacy of fertilizers and pesticides on specific areas of cropland, whether certain sections of land are underperforming in yield, and where soil runoff is most problematic. Agriculture industry giants such as John Deere and Monsanto, which bought The Climate Corporation, have deployed applications that use Big Data analytics incorporating weather radar, satellites, and aerial imagery to provide insights on factors impacting crop yield.

The Climate Corporation uses radar, satellites, and more than 10,000 automated weather stations to calculate average rainfall on map grids that are matched to a farmer’s fields. The company provides three-day, site-specific rainfall estimates so farmers know when to irrigate, or when to hold off in anticipation of rain, based on soil moisture coupled with the forecasts. The company processes some 800 million data points to create rainfall estimates that help farmers optimize water usage.

Taking things a step further, farmers could soon deploy drones and remote sensing platforms that look at electromagnetic radiation and light coming off the field for information about crop health. All of this data and analytics contribute to the ultimate goal of higher crop yields.

Barriers to Growth

This Big Data vision of farming is spreading quickly, but there are some speed bumps. “Because many of these technological innovations are based on mobility and remotely transmitted data, more and better broadband is needed on American farms,” according to a column in Governing. Today, in some remote locations, farmers have to use expensive satellite communications technology.

Indeed, all of this technology comes with a hefty price. In order to afford these capabilities, U.S. farms may have to get bigger, which would further drive industry consolidation. At least one industry observer, however, thinks that these technologies will fall enough in price to aid farmers in third-world countries. Those small farmers may find that IoT and Big Data analytics are worth spending money on instead of on certain expensive machinery such as a combine, he says.

The potential for Big Data and IoT in agriculture is enormous and could change the way we think of farming.

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