Harvesting the IoT Down on the Farm

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

A panel discussion about the Internet of Things in agriculture reveals the ways in which farmers big and small are turning to technology to solve myriad production challenges.

Macario Namie, Jasper Technologies' VP of marketing, told an audience of technologists, investors and media—at a meeting convened in San Francisco on Oct. 2—that based on what is most covered in the media, people tend to think the Internet of Things is only about talking refrigerators and smart thermostats. Yet his company—which runs a cloud-based software platform enabling businesses to manage networks of connected sensors embedded in everything from vending machines to vehicle telematics units—is seeing much broader adoption of IoT technology across industries.

One of those industries, agriculture, was the focus of the discussion, which was moderated by‎ Andrea James, a senior research analyst at investment bank Dougherty & Co.. James noted that a range of factors, from drought to low commodity prices, mean hard times for many agricultural industry players. Why, then, are these end users investing in IoT technology?

Jasper Technologies panel discussion. Left to right: Andrea James, senior research analyst, Dougherty & Company; Michael Gilbert, CEO, Semios; Charles Schleusner, product line marketing manager, John Deere; Matthew Sandink, co-founder, Smart Watering Systems; Matthew Pryor, CEO, Observant; and Michael Gomes, VP of business development, Topcon Precision Agriculture (Photo: Jasper Technologies)

Michael Gomes, Topcon Precision Agriculture's VP of business development, says interest in IoT stems from farmers' recognition that the growing global population, paired with limited natural resources, means that they must do more with less. That is why Topcon's customers are turning to precision agriculture—the practice of using precise measurements of variables, such as soil type, topography and hydrology, tracked using GPS systems and sensor networks, to optimize the inputs (water, fertilizers and pesticides) applied to crops. Topcon Precision Agriculture, a subsidiary of Topcon Positioning Systems, develops and manufactures satellite positioning and guidance systems and electronic controls, as well as mapping and monitoring systems. It uses Jasper Technologies' cloud-based platform to collect data from farm equipment, and to then analyze and share this information with its customers in order to improve input application.

"We understand the challenges of a growing population with respect to food, fiber and fuel," Gomes said. "Precision agriculture is not just about the intensity of production, but also about sustainability; it's about only putting out what we need when we need it. Sustainability is what drives their business."

Gomes said he considers farmers "among the most resourceful people on the planet," adding that they love exploring new ways in which to use tools—not just mechanical implements, but also cloud connectivity and sensor networks. "That's the opportunity I see in our industry," he stated.

Resource conservation is a big driver for farmers that use Semios' service as well, said Michael Gilbert, the company's chief executive officer. Semios employs networked sensors to monitor climatic conditions and insect populations at fruit and nut orchards and vineyards. Using Internet-connected cameras and traps, Semios tracks specific pest insects, spraying pheromones at strategic times to disrupt their mating processes. This biochemical pest control management allows farmers to greatly reduce the amount of chemical pesticides they need to apply to their crops.

The use of pheromones to control pest populations is not new in agriculture, but by deploying wireless sensors across entire farming operations, collecting the data via a central server and managing the pheromone sprayers remotely, Semios can scale up the use of pheromones while reducing labor costs and the amount of time associated with less automated systems. On the farm, sensor data is shared via a low-power network built on the IEEE 802.15.4 protocol, which can operate at the 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz frequency bands. Semios' gateways installed in the field collect that sensor data and use a cellular network to forward it to a server.

Also on the panel was Charles Schleusner, the product line marketing manager of John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group, which develops automation and connectivity systems for the company's farm equipment through the use of sensors and GPS units. Aside from being able to assist farmers in precision farming practices, he said, John Deere derives internal value from the IoT technology it deploys. The company uses the connectivity to remotely monitor the health of equipment and trigger preventative maintenance orders. John Deere is leveraging the data collected to improve product development by better understanding how equipment is used, to flag common maintenance problems, and to manage warranty programs associated with the equipment.

"Information collected from our machines [offers] management reporting that we didn't have access to before," Schleusner said. "IoT is bringing enterprise resource planning to the farm."