Dr. Hugh Martin, principal lecturer in agricultural science at the Royal Agricultural University, looks at how the IoT revolution is helping usher in a new age of farming

Industry 4.0 is a well-known idea. Perhaps less well-known is Agriculture 4.0. Martin identifies three previous revolutions in agriculture – dating back to the introduction of one of the original pieces of farming technology in 1730 in the form of Jethro Tull’s seed drill.

Broadly, these three revolutions can be defined as; the introduction of mechanisation, the use of mineral fertilisers, and the industrialisation of production processes. Now, Martin believes, connectivity and data management are set to unleash the next stage. He notes that the most significant aspect of this fourth revolution will be the pace of change.

Modern tech in the field

Agriculture has recently been witness to a wealth of novel technologies, but, Martin argues, the most exciting development is precision farming. Precision farming is a process by which data is gathered and managed by multiple technologies such as in-field, in-building, or in-animal sensors and remote (satellite and drone) sensing systems.

GPS, meteorological data, and RFID, which can be used with geo-mapping, yield mapping, high precision positioning systems and variable rate application systems, allow the production system to address variations for input requirements on a very fine scale, down from the field and herd scale of the past to a square metre or individual animal.

Key to this whole process is connectivity. Data gathering, previously one of the most difficult aspects of farming, according to Martin, can now be automated through connected devices. This has massive implications for improving production and making farming genuinely sustainable.

Martin notes that though connected devices are being used, they’re not yet commonplace. He estimates around 5-10% of farmers have adopted the technology. This lack of adoption can be attributed in part to the providers and manufacturers which are often very good at promoting their products, but perhaps don’t make it clear how they will increase profitability for farmers. Innovative technologies always need solid evidence of their business value before adoption becomes widespread.

There is little doubt that the age of robots is upon us, and agriculture is a good way of exploiting the capabilities of these new and advanced technologies

If agriculture has not yet made the leap to wholesale adoption and acceptance of these technologies, it can do well to look to other industries. As the intersection between tech industries and agriculture becomes increasingly blurred, the cross-fertilisation between these other industries that are seemingly unrelated to agriculture is likely to continue, and push agriculture to improve its processes.

The benefits of agricultural IoT

With all the possibilities that smart, connected technology offers, what specific benefit can it have on agriculture? Martin believes that the key is cutting out human intervention from processes that are time-consuming and labour intensive.

He believes that there is little doubt that the age of robots is upon us, and agriculture is a good way of exploiting the capabilities of these new and advanced technologies. Robotic milking has been in use for some time now, but solutions to more challenging applications are being developed and are about to make a big change to the way farming is done.

Crop weeding, spraying, monitoring and diagnostics, fruit picking and selection, and many other field operations have been made possible by autonomous machines through the development of computer vision and cloud-based processing of data.

One of the great challenges facing this generation, and particularly in farming, is looking after the environment. By using these smart techniques, it’s possible to eliminate waste on a grand scale. Martin notes that agriculture is dependent upon inputs being delivered at the right time and in the right quantity. This applies to both crops and animals. Crops need fertilisers, such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, at critical times in their growth.

The cloud, advances in connectivity and analytics are able to present the farmer with the information needed to make more effective, and much more rapid decisions

These inputs can now be delivered with significantly higher levels of precision, which has two effects. First, it increases profitability, but perhaps more importantly, it decreases the likelihood of contamination of the environment, it uses less fuel and increases the efficiency of the use of manpower.

The same advantages apply to the precise application of crop protection chemicals to reduce the impact of weeds, animal pests and disease. Through this level of precision, there is minimal damage to the ecology of crops and their surrounding areas.

The challenges of gathering data

Businesses often talk about the challenges of data – how to collect it, how to store, and how to analyse it. These challenges only become more significant in the unpredictable and challenging world of agriculture.

Martin uses the example of pest control in cotton. Having studied the integration of new methods in this area, where a software package was used to direct a farmer’s decision making, he notes that one of the biggest problems was data gathering. Data needed to be collected on areas as diverse as current weather, weather forecasts, pest levels, population dynamics, crop growth stages and input prices.

The software was extremely capable, but it was not adopted thanks to the issues in collecting this data. Now, Martin argues, these issues are of the past. The cloud, advances in connectivity and analytics are able to process vast amounts of automatically harvested data, and have the capacity to present the farmer with the information needed to make more effective, and much more rapid decisions.

Success in the industry

It is often said that in the days of rapidly advancing technology, those who don’t move forward, stand still. Can a farmer succeed without adopting connected technology? That depends on your definition of success, argues Martin.

He believes there will always be a demand for the produce of philosophy-driven farming that rejects some modern production techniques. However, for the majority of us, food and all of the other products of agriculture will be produced by methods using ever-increasing levels of technology, and run and managed by tech-fluent farmers.

This applies not just in rich, Western economies, but in the farms and fields of developing nations too. Digital adoption means a true change in the way food is produced and the way the planet is looked after. The modern farmer will need to be technology savvy to thrive in the age of Agriculture 4.0.