Getting smart about agriculture

Enhancing productivity intelligently

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The Internet of things offers enormous potential to farmers seeking to increase yields, reduce resource wastage and improve efficiencies. At present, there are over seven billion people on the planet, a figure that’s expected to reach close to 10 billion by the year 2050. Such a massive rise in population will undoubtedly mean that food production will need to increase significantly, if production is to keep pace with the population growth.

This, in turn, means farmers need to find better and more efficient ways of growing food, increasing their yield and reducing the risks of crop failure. The conventional approach to obtaining data relevant to such requirements would entail physical crop inspection, which is not only time-consuming, but can also prove quite inaccurate.

The same goes for fixed and tractor-mounted sensors, which cannot deliver a thorough real-time picture of what is happening in the fields. Moreover, even when farmers are able to get their hands on data via the methods above, there is still the difficulty in translating this into operational insights that can actually help them to improve their methods.

However, we feel that technology like the Internet of things (IoT) will help farmers overcome these challenges and in the next few years’ application of this technology will be witnessed in enhancing agricultural productivity as well.

What we refer to as smart agriculture incorporates IoT-based advanced technologies and solutions designed to improve operational efficiency, maximise yield and minimise wastage. This is achieved through real-time field data collection, data analysis and deployment of control mechanisms. Diverse IoT-based applications designed specifically for the agricultural industry will soon be playing an instrumental role in the enhancement of farming processes.

For example, as water scarcity is becoming an increasingly significant problem, it will be key for farmers to look at effective ways of smart irrigation. More so, an IoT-based smart irrigation system will be able to measure various parameters such as humidity, soil moisture, temperature and light intensity, to calculate the precise irrigation requirements.

Another area where the IoT will offer advantages is in terms of yield monitoring, which is the mechanism to observe areas related to agricultural yield, like grain mass flow, moisture content and total quantity of harvested grain. Yield monitoring offers real-time information to farmers to facilitate decision-making and to reduce operational costs and enhance productivity.

IoT sensors can even be used to monitor the soil, assisting farmers in tracking and improving the quality of soil, with the aim of avoiding degradation. These sensors allow for the monitoring of a number of physical, chemical and biological properties - everything from texture and water-holding capacity to the soil’s absorption rate. Soil monitoring is key to minimising erosion, densification, salinisation, acidification and pollution, to name a few.

Of course, a major point of contention is that more than 60% of farmers agree on is that the high investment costs of smart farming technologies, along with coverage issues, are the major pain points which must be addressed before there will be a major uptake in smart farming. Obviously, the network that these objects and sensors connect to will have to be cost efficient, if costs are to be reduced enough to make this a viable approach.

SqwidNet, a wholly owned subsidiary of DFA, is busy rolling out a dedicated IoT network, designed purely to connect objects to the network, SqwidNet currently covers 83% of the population of South Africa. Since virtually every device that is connected only transmits a small amount of data, and usually in bursts, means that the cost of connectivity is minimal. This network, therefore, offers the perfect opportunity to accelerate the development and deployment of smart farming solutions, among countless other applications.

Phathizwe Malinga, Acting CEO, SqwidNet

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