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Industrialisation transformed farming. Could sensor technology and connectivity do the same all over again?

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We’re always on the lookout for interesting application areas for the Internet of Things. Although it’s far from the most trendy industry out there, farming and agriculture is a potential goldmine for IoT developers with an open mind.

In the first of a two article series, we take a look at the market opportunity within farming and agriculture, starting with a focus on livestock.

Another step change for farming?

The story of farming has advanced from small-scale personal farms to industrial-scale operations.

Looking back, individual farmers used to work small plots of land and owned few animals. They’d know each animal’s name, history and traits, enough to be able to tend to the specific needs of each individual animal. This likely translated into maximizing the farmers investment and good animal welfare.

As farms in general became significantly larger, centralised and industrialised, such personal attention and knowledge of each animal was reduced. This brought costs down and led to more efficient production.

While efficiency has increased, the individual touch has to some extent disappeared. Imagine a chicken coop with a few hens compared to a modern equivalent of over 100,000 at one farm. IoT technology could soon bring the best of both worlds: attending to the individual needs of animals while running a highly productive and efficient operation.

Enabling precision livestock farming

The concept of monitoring and tending to each animal individually is an element of precision livestock farming (PLF), which has been around for some time.

To describe the concept, consider this example. A farmer has responsibility for a large number of cows and goats, which graze over a vast area, often out of sight. It would be impossible for the farmer to monitor the health and well-being of all of them, beyond watching out for obvious physical signs of illness when in contact with the animal. But that time can be limited as events such as milking and feeding may to a large extent be automated.

By equipping each animal with a basic set of sensors such as GPS, an accelerometer and a means of communication, large scale data collection is possible. The raw data itself is overwhelming in quantity, but significant value may be extracted when used with an analysis tool.

An animal not moving for an extended period of time could indicate sickness or injury. The farmer will be alerted, and since the position of the animal is known, attention can be rapidly and effectively directed to the individual which need it the most.

More advanced medical sensors could even note the animal’s heart rate and body temperature.

The technology is essentially the same as existing pet monitoring sensors, just with the added scale and analytics layer. Data may be aggregated and analysed for long-term patterns, which can lead to improved animal welfare and a reduced cost.

A fence-free farm

Collecting positioning data opens up additional possibilities too. The Norwegian technology company Nofence uses Nordic’s nRF52832 Bluetooth Low Energy SoC for its virtual fencing system, designed to eliminate the need for farmers to maintain physical fences for grazing animals.

From a map on the Nofence iOS and Android app on a smartphone or tablet, the farmer draws a boundary for the pasture they want the animals to remain within. If an individual strays outside this boundary, the collar emits a sound and vibrates, warning the animal to return. Virtual fencing may also aid in animal collection and guiding towards desired pastures.

The challenges of IoT for live animals

As with many industrial IoT applications, the quality of the hardware must be up there with the best. The sensors will be typically used in the field and can be easily damaged and must endure prolonged exposure to harsh weather conditions. Hardware must be durable and easy to maintain.

Each connected device should operate with low-power requirements, and have enough wireless range to communicate with the other devices and send data to the central server. On some large farms, there could be miles between devices.

Cellular connectivity - the enabler

To implement a connected farmyard requires technologies that are low-power by design and have excellent range capabilities.

Combining the range capabilities and reliability of cellular with the many advantages of a Bluetooth Mesh network could prove the perfect combination for a productive smart farm.

Read more: Mesh + Cellular: Ideal Partners for Industrial IoT


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