Introduction: Smart Technology on Modern Farms
Technologization of agriculture comes with a range of benefits from increased crop output to increased worker safety and even reduced impact on natural ecosystems.
Modern farms operate far differently than they did a decade ago, now utilizing robots, sensors, aerial imaging, and GPS technology. Traditional approaches, however, largely use data in a reactive manner, resulting in waste and potential damage to crops.
The next step toward increased autonomy and efficiency is the integration of smart technologiesï¿½this is especially crucial to meet the needs of an exponentially growing world population and simultaneously declining agricultural workforce, compounded by climate change.
By 2050, it is estimated that the world will have between 9.4 and 10.1 billion people, increasing the demand for dedicated food production areas for planting and livestock. Environmental damage and urbanization present challenges in this regard, some of which smart farming will enable us to solve.
The Agricultural IoT Revolution
The Internet of Things is expected to be a revolutionizing force in the industry. Data collection via smart sensors and measuring parameters like temperature, humidity, light and more can automate information management and data analysis. This date can then be used to optimize crop and livestock conditions, boosting productivity and reducing waste of both resources and labor.
On top of this and other potential applications, recent developments in network communications, reduction of hardware size, optimization of power consumption and cheaper devices overall mean that large-scale adoption of IoT devices is more possible than ever.
However, there are remaining challenges to this endeavor. Smart Agriculture use cases can include everything from chemical control, crop monitoring and disease prevention to soil monitoring and irrigation control, as well as supply chain traceability and vehicle and machinery control.
A high variety of processes, types of production, objects and stakeholders, as well as the often-fragmented nature of IoT-based systems, necessitates an intelligent architecture and software ecosystem that maximizes synergy across multiple systems.
An electronics manufacturing services (EMS) partner that is experienced in both connectivity and the agricultural industry can be an invaluable resource in developing these complex designs.
Smart Farm Architecture: Coverage Challenges
It is not uncommon to find fully-automated greenhouses in which sensor-equipped IoT nodes collect and analyze data. IoT gateways used as part of these monitoring systems have been developed to be compatible with multiple access methods such as LAN, WiFi, GPRS, EDGE, 3G and so on, as well as storing the data locally.
These systems operate in an already-controlled environment, minimizing the many variables that impede our ability to implement automated systems of control. However, these variables are still closely tied to one another, and manipulation requires incredible precision.
The question becomes: what technologies, architectures and practices are required to expand this to an open field? The agricultural sector needs continuous monitoring and control, but deployment also requires additional on-field connectivity, as fields largely lack a wired energy supply and reliable network coverage.
An article published by the Internet of Things Lab at the University of Parma presents a Long-Range Wide-Area Network (LoRaWAN) smart farming modular IoT architecture.
This LoRaWAN-based Smart Farming Modular IoT Architecture (dubbed ï¿½LoRaFarMï¿½ for short) features a generally applicable core infrastructure that can be completed with specialized modules depending on the needs of the particular farm.
Since LoRaWAN technology is, as the name suggests, both a low-power and a long-range solution, it can provide connectivity over large agricultural fields with a low energy requirement. The trade-off, however, is a low data rate. The LoRaWAN Gateways in their described ï¿½star-of-starsï¿½ network receive multiple transmissions in the same frequency band with varying Spreading Factors, sending the packets on to a network server.
This topology uses several stars to work around the distance limits between central node and peripheral nodes.
Of course, this architecture is not the only possible solution. Platforms differ in terms of covered scenarios and devices as well as communication protocols. It is possible to utilize low-range technologies such as BLE and ZigBee, medium-range tech like IEEE 802.11 and long-range options like cellular LTE.
However, an IoT system deployed in open fields largely needs to rely on long-range power efficient technologies like LoRaWAN, Narrowband IoT or SigFox, which is used, for example, for cow geo-localization.
WiFi is common due to its ubiquitous nature, but it poses significant drawbacks in power usage and signal range. Cellular solutions are popular, as they allow long-range communication with a high data rate.
SigFox and LoRaWAN become more useful in areas with no cellular network coverage, or when low-energy operation is required. Wired networks, like CAN and Ethernet, are useful in mitigating other issues such as vegetation itself becoming an obstacle for sensor communication, though they are mostly used in greenhouse applications. In addition, as seen in the solution developed by the University of Parma, it is quite possible to utilize multiple network protocols simultaneously.
Your EMS provider should have an extensive knowledge all of these IoT solutions and more, and will be able to assist in determining the best protocol or combination of protocols for the particular application.
Smart Agriculture Hardware Design
Choice of hardware is another important aspect of Smart Agriculture design. According to a literature review published in 2020, nearly half of the reviewed solutions utilized single board computers (SBCs), particularly those like Arduino with integrated development environments (IDEs), as they are affordable and versatile enough to enable development of custom devices. SBCs are possible hardware solutions for both sensor nodes and gateways.
Raspberry Pi (RPi) is another common choice due to its compatibility with a variety of operating systems. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also common, particularly as crop monitoring tools. UAVs can both optimize application of chemicals to the field and monitor overall health and signs of disease, obtaining aerial images of large field areas, which are then processed to calculate a variety of agricultural parameters.
Moving toward an ideal solution means a platform built to manage multiple Smart Agriculture scenarios, integrating heterogeneous hardware and network connectivity technologies in a seamless way.
An EMS partner with the relevant experience and capabilities will be able to provide the expertise needed to realize this design.
Cloud-based platforms provide scalability and have been used with increasing regularity in agricultural applications to supplement more simple data collection systems.
ThingSpeak is most the most used platform, due to its low infrastructure requirements and opensource nature. Data analysis is also supplemented by cloud serverï¿½s utilization of AI or big data analytics and machine learning, as well as computer vision for process images collected by UAVs.
Blockchain technology has also proved invaluable for systems which need to implement traceability of the supply chain, as it records all transactions between users.
Work in developing efficient and environmentally sound Smart Agriculture solutions is increasingly relevant as available arable land and workforce decrease but need continues to grow.
Low-cost, autonomous, energy efficient, interoperable, heterogeneous, and robust solutions that can feature AI and decision support, along with low maintenance needs, are in demand. Future directions include further development of architecture and tools to extend functionalities and examine and analyze more and more parameters, all within a well-aligned system and seamlessly interoperable.
To ensure speed and efficiency bringing smart agriculture products to market, consider partnering with an EMS provider like PCI. PCI has 30 years of EMS experience, including broad understanding of the agriculture and industrial landscapes as well as the connected world. We have proven expertise in LoRA, Sigfox, BLE, NB-IoT, CatM1 and Cat1, including various sensing modules such as GNSS, accelerometers, gyroscope, magnetometers, hall effect, VOC and others. Our Lean Six Sigma manufacturing expertise enables us to customize our manufacturing line to meet our partnersï¿½ requirements and quickly scale production as needs arise.
Contact PCI today to learn more about our capabilities.