How the next wave of IoT networks and sensors will help feed the world

Delivering the Promise of IoT in Rural America
April 3, 2019

As published on the Orange Silicon Valley Blog

Editor’s note: The following guest post has been contributed by Ken Lynch, who serves as the director of marketing at Senet. Ken has authored several articles on the application and advancement of Internet of Things technologies for network operators and in the agriculture, utilities, industrial and enterprise markets. Senet is currently a technology provider being evaluated as a part of a program set up in connection with a partnernship between Orange Silicon Valley and University of California Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources (UC ANR).

The Orange Silicon Valley partnership with UC ANR is testing rural and off-grid connectivity solutions in order to facilitate the evaluation and implementation of smart agricultural solutions. One of the goals of this multi-year partnership is to identify feasible and realistic next-generation agricultural technologies that can be deployed in North and West Africa, where Orange — as one of the worlds largest telecommunications operators — supports 145 million customers across 21 countries. Senet, BlueTown and Arable Labs are all providing technology that is being evaluated. For more information on the program, or to inquire about getting involved, please contact OSV’s Principal of Emerging Countries, Darren Sabo.

 

Since the early days of the industrial revolution through the 20th century, the introduction of new technologies and the resulting innovations in farming practices have helped farmers adopt more efficient and effective farming methods that have boosted productivity and profitability. Now, “smart agriculture”, supported by Internet of Things (IoT) technologies holds the same promise. However, smart farming is not just about boosting agricultural productivity to help farmers harvest more, better and faster; it is about applying new technologies and sustainable farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, animal welfare, and to ensure that farmers can meet the world’s food demands in the coming years.

With the impacts of climate change, combined with rapid population growth that will require farms to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 — according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates — our future depends on innovators solving complex challenges for food and agriculture. Addressing these and other areas of innovation and economic development is the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), one of the world’s leading organizations committed to research and public service that deliver high quality science and technology to growers, industry and land managers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Gabriel Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer at UC ANR about their evaluation and use of various technologies to support their research, including low power, low cost sensors and new types of networks designed for the next wave of Internet of Things applications in agriculture.

Operating as part of one of the largest research universities in the world, UC ANR focuses primarily on issues related to regional food production, but they also actively support the development and commercialization of ag tech designed to address global food and agriculture challenges through collaboration with enabling technology companies like Senet and technology development and integration organizations such as Orange Silicon Valley.

Low Power, Wide Area Network technology in agriculture

In agribusiness, sensor data is beginning to enable farmers to deliver higher yields and operate more effectively. However, these advances are dependent on resilient, cost effective and easy to deploy connectivity, often in areas where there is no pre-existing infrastructure. Emerging Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs), including LoRaWAN Networks (Low Power Wide Area Networks designed using the LoRaWAN protocol) are ideal for gathering data about local agricultural conditions – including weather, soil moisture, chemical compositions and other environmental conditions in remote areas where the cost, complexity and deployment of cellular and other services can be prohibitive.

By design, LPWANs provide connectivity to inexpensive, low-power sensor devices that communicate small amounts of data periodically. Extended range is a key feature of LoRaWAN networks, enabling sensors to connect to gateways that are up to 15 to 30 miles away, making it possible to expand per-acre coverage and monitor more assets due to the simplicity of deployment and cost of ownership reductions.

The growing adoption of these and other smart farming technologies are contributing to an optimized production and supply chain in which agriculture suppliers are able to better manage yield, improve inventory management, enhance delivery services, and ultimately contribute to automation in which goods can be delivered in real-time based on supply and demand.

Initial steps and findings

Building on their prior research of wired networks, WiFi, Bluetooth and a variety of sensors and connectivity platform configurations for IoT applications, UC ANR recently developed a research protocol to test LoRaWAN connectivity and sensor technology in their digital ag tech lab. In this environment, researchers are able to test new technologies in a safe test bed environment, producing results that are as close to real-world farming as possible, yet in a flexible field lab.

The initial areas of focus for this project include a general comparison of LoRaWAN to other technologies, the integration of LoRaWAN devices and data with common connectivity platforms, and the testing of sensors for a variety of use agriculture cases — starting with soil moisture and nitrogen sensing to help determine optimal growing conditions.


“As we are able to capture data about all aspects of farming across a variety of crops, use the data to drive decisions through artificial intelligence, and integrate the technology so it’s easier to use, we will foster technology solutions that help feed the world.”


Gabriel Youtsey, Chief Innovation Officer, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

The LoRaWAN connectivity deployed by UC ANR is part of a network “fabric” that blankets the entire research center, allowing for many different types of sensors to be layered in across its various crops. In time, this network will connect sensors in the ground, on trees and plants, and in the sky, ultimately creating a “digital twin” of the research farm. With connectivity to the cloud, advanced software programs and data management and analysis platforms can be used to create both new insights that will help automate on-farm decision making and help reduce resources to maximize profits and environmental benefits.

CIO Youtsey says, “As we are able to capture data about all aspects of farming across a variety of crops, use the data to drive decisions through artificial intelligence, and integrate the technology so it’s easier to use, we will foster technology solutions that help feed the world.”

Next steps

With the increased investment in Internet of Things technologies for the agriculture market, the automated collection of environmental conditions, other crop related input and the resulting output of contextualized data is becoming more meaningful and actionable. This digitalization of the agricultural industry is enabling more efficient allocation and use of resources and driving process optimization for stakeholders throughout the entire global supply-chain.

As the project continues, UC ANR researchers plan to expand their evaluation of LoRaWAN for a variety of applications such as:

  • Irrigation management for water conservation
  • Nitrogen management to optimize fertilizer application
  • Pest management

Other areas of interest with high-value across the global production and supply chain includeFood safety and tracking

  • Labor and workforce management
  • Task management
  • Compliance reporting

Researchers will also evaluate opportunities for the commercialization of the solutions they are creating in collaboration with industry partners like Senet and Orange Silicon Valley, as well as ag tech suppliers, farm commodity groups, and others. Joint ventures and new tech projects born out of these activities will help with the creation of next-generation integrated platforms and data infrastructures.

The farming and agricultural industry relies on innovative ideas and technological advancements to help increase yields and better allocate resources. Through a combination of scientific research, the rollout of Low Power Wide Area Networks across rural areas and the commercial availability of a wide range of low cost sensor devices, the next several years will see a dramatic increase in the use of IoT smart farming technologies, leading to new benchmarks in productivity, sustainability, conservation.

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