Australian agriculture has historically been defined by long droughts and irregular rainfall. For farmers, these harsh conditions leave small margins for error, meaning that gruelling work on the paddock does not necessarily translate to healthy stock or strong crop harvests.
One way that farmers have adapted to these conditions is the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors. But in comparison to other sectors, farmers have been slow to adopt these technologies due to concerns surrounding the cost of implementation and ongoing service–particularly when there is no immediate value received for certain IoT technologies, which can sometimes take several years of accumulating data before it shows its value.
Yet Data61 senior principal research scientist Raja Jurdak says farmers are growing an appetite for IoT devices and sensors as the value behind these technologies become clearer.
For example, from using IoT pest technology such as Data61’s Vertebrate Pest Detect-and-Deter (VPDaD), farmers have been able to reduce the amount of pests eating their crops. Pests cause AU$1 billion losses each year for Australian farmers, according to CSIRO.
VPDaD consists of two core technologies: Motion sensing devices with deterring lights and sounds, and thermal and colour camera sensing devices called Sentinels, which are used to identify different types of animals.
The Sentinel captures images of the animals. It processes the information in real-time and sends the information to the VPDaD devices so it can identify whether an approaching animal is a pest, and then uses the appropriate deterrence tool if it is required.
IoT agtech has also become much cheaper than before. Data 61 research scientist Brano Kusy explained how technology that tracks the movement of individual livestock can be bought at around AU$50 apiece in 2019. With the cost of breeding stock typically having four digits, the cost of agtech starts to hit economical thresholds where it’s possible for every animal to have a sensor, Kusy said.
According to an AgThentic report, titled Emerging technologies in agriculture, it is predicted that IoT device installations in agriculture will increase to 75 million in 2022, from 30 million in 2015 around the world, which would be an average annual growth rate of 20 percent.
Using IoT to help farmers beyond the paddock
The modern farmer has to do more than grow healthy crops and livestock, which is only one of the many elements required for successful farming. Other considerations, such as demonstrating the quality of an agricultural product, are also important for allowing farmers to run an efficient, stable farming operation.
From having to juggle all of these responsibilities at the same time, a growing trend in Australian agriculture has been the deployment of IoT sensors across remote areas so farmers can do tasks such as tracking herds more efficiently, as well as spend more time improving the quality and well-being of their livestock.
Living in a social media age where consumers care more about where their food comes from, farmers are required more than ever to demonstrate that their products are ethically made and of high quality.
To tackle these issues surrounding the quality of agricultural products, IoT technology such as smart ear tags for cows have been developed, Jurdak said. CSIRO and agtech startup Ceres Tag developed a smart ear tag last year that helps farmers track the location of their livestock–such as where they graze and whether one has escaped or been stolen. The tags are also fitted with accelerometers, so they can notify farmers when unusual activity is detected.
By collecting data on the living conditions of livestock, IoT can make the back-end farming processes–such as demonstrating the quality of an agricultural product–much easier due to the trackable nature of this type of data.
While the primary use case for this type of technology is to track the health of livestock, it also has many other use cases beyond the paddock. For example, geo-tagging provides health data for the entire lifespan of tagged livestock, which can then be traced via blockchain. Through residing in a blockchain, this makes it difficult for data to be changed–or falsified–due to it being a ledger. What this means, Jurdak says, is that consumers and retailers can be confident that farmers are transparent when sharing information about their products.
“There is specifically a lot of value given to knowing the provenance of the items, some people call that farm-to-fork or farm-to-table, and more and more, people want to have the ability to know where their food is coming from,” Jurdak said.
Particularly within an Australian context, where its agricultural products possess strong brand recognition throughout the Asia-Pacific region, the integration of the data collected into buy practices would also counteract against the counterfeiting of Australian products, which costs Australia’s agriculture sector nearly $2 billion each year in lost profits, according to the AgThentic report.
Consumers are increasingly wanting proof that what they are buying is the genuine good, so the benefits of such technologies become apparent due to their ability to demonstrate that products are of top quality and are delivered under optimal conditions.
What does the future of agri-tech hold?
Despite the rise of adoption numbers for IoT devices, Jurdak says there is still work to be done, especially in the area of developing energy efficient and self-sufficient sensors.
At the moment, most IoT devices require batteries to function, but there are more and more projects–such as the CSIRO-developed product eGrazor, which measures the intake of pasture by livestock–that use solar panels to replenish energy so that they work longer.
“We are hoping to have battery-less sensors that just get energy from the environment to provide useful data–this energy neutrality of the devices is a key goal for us,” Jurdak said.
SEE: The future of food (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)
Perhaps of more concern to the agricultural sector is that greenhouse gases emissions from livestock are one of the major contributors to global warming. In a widely reported recent study, Poore and Nemecek (2018) noted that meat and dairy consumption produce an unproportionate impact on the environment compared to its actual value.
“Meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories,” the study said.
As the standard of living continues to improve around the world, there is also a tendency for people to eat more meat, especially within developing countries. The rate of meat consumption is expected to grow quickly over the next 5 to 10 years, according to Kusy, which will have grave implications on the amount of greenhouse emissions created.
Facing this environmental reality, farmers will have to place more efforts into monitoring how much greenhouse emissions, specifically methane, are generated from producing livestock or crops. The eventual hope for IoT devices and sensors, Kusy says, would be to use tracking data from IoT devices such as the smart ear tags alongside other IoT field sensors that collect data on the amount of methane generated. Farmers, as well as agtech specialists, would then be able to build models that demonstrate what specific genome of livestock or feed product combinations emit the most methane into the atmosphere, he said.
With the use of agtech becoming more prevalent in farms, Jurdak recommends that people in the agriculture domain are open to engaging with agtech specialists to better understand the capabilities of the technology and the benefits of adopting it.
“In our experience, these sorts of discussions [between farmers and agtech specialists] actually identify the biggest opportunities for technology use in agriculture.”