Agribusiness is being digitised by IoT sensors and the cloud

Moo-ve over, runners and joggers – you're not the only ones who are wearing a Fitbit, Jawbone or the Vivofit. Fujitsu has come up with its 'Akisai' cloud for agribusiness, of which the centrepiece is undoubtedly the connected cow. 

When cows are in heat, they walk more, so by attaching pedometers to them farmers can identify which ones are ready for breeding. This cloud-based Akisai platform – Fujitsu's attempt at Software as a Service (SaaS) to increase efficiency and modernise agriculture – could replace farmers with data scientists.


Precision farming

As well as cows, Akisai deals in rice production and vegetables. On its Aizu-Wakamatsu Akisai Plant Factory in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, technicians have created a self-contained, fully controlled greenhouse inside an old semi-conductor plant.

"Data is collected from sensors that provide information on things like soil temperature, humidity, light levels and rainfall," says Richard Marquardt, spokesperson at Fujitsu Japan in Tokyo. "This data enables farmers to access accurate information on growing conditions so they can implement changes to increase yields." However, it's what happens to that data that's the magic ingredient.


Cloud farms

"We're performing big data analytics on the data gathered from the sensors, and using Microsoft's Azure cloud for the IoT system analytics," says Takao Mizutani, Director of the IoT Business Division, Network Services Business Unit at Fujitsu in Tokyo. Calculations in the cloud precisely control the atmosphere – and, crucially, predict the exact yield of the crop – by regulating temperature, moisture levels, and even the active ingredients included in very specific amounts of liquid fertilisers.

"Akisai also uses machine learning to get new insights from the past growing data," adds Mizutani, with data on previous yields automatically informing how the next crop is handled. Akisai has also been used to reduce the amount of pesticides used in tomato growing.


Remote sensing

As well as reducing pesticide use, new tech is being used to save water. Hahn Wines in California's drought-hit Santa Lucia Highlands has turned to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – remote-sensing drones – to monitor air quality and take images of vine density. Combine that with similar sensors found in Akisai – such as temperature, humidity and soil moisture – and the farmer knows exactly how much water the vines need.

"The drone is a flying computer and has the artificial intelligence to make the best possible decisions in-flight to collect consistent and accurate data every time," says Patrick Lohman, VP of Partnerships at PrecisionHawk, which provides Hahn Wines with its PrecisionHawk Lancaster UAV. In an almost completely automated system, the drone sends images and readings back to a drone data mapping and cloud analytics platform called DataMapper for calculations and data analysis.


Autonomous planters

Monitoring how crops are doing, and what they need, is one thing, but what about the actual planting? That's also being streamlined as farms get networked.  Using GPS, John Deere already sells automated planters that can run at 10mph and autonomously plant 24 rows of seeds to a depth of exactly 1.5-inches, and plant them 3-inches apart. All the farmer does is use the SeedStar app on an iPad, where real-time readouts of the planters' progress are viewable.


Productivity priorities

With planters able to take measurements and transmit data, the key ingredient in smart farming becomes the SaaS platform. Business application software company SAP has developed SAP Vehicle Insights, which collates all the data collected on the farm and introduces unstructured data, such as weather information and imaging from satellites.

"It makes big data into smart data," says Matthias Aurin, SAP software development architect at SAP SE (smart farms). "It integrates all the data available – from sensors and connected machines, external weather information, satellite images, information from drones, and past growing information – and transforms it into valuable business data to help the farmer prioritise."


Resource billing

For instance, the system can identify which fields need irrigation, but if there's rain predicted, it informs the farmer. "Farmers can measure the profitability of fields, and see why some fields are more profitable than others," says Aurin. "You can reduce the amount of fertiliser according to exactly what's needed."

The SAP system can also show the availability of a farmer's favoured sub-contractors, but the fleet management part of the system helps them, too. Since it collects telematics data from connected vehicles – on speed, fuel consumption, and exactly what they're doing – a contractor can see precisely how much fertiliser and fuel is being used, enabling resource-related billing.

An internet of food

Most of this tech is aimed at producing greater amounts of food more cheaply. "Increased yields at the farm level through other Internet of Things applications – such as soil moisture monitoring, weather pattern analytics, and the use of drones – should also increase the supply of food," says Isabel Chapman, Principal Analyst at Machina Research.

But Internet of Things applications are also being used to streamline the 'cold chain' in an effort to make imported, globally-traded foodstuffs – such as prawns, and vegetables that spoil quickly – more reliable. By fitting a SIM card to a refrigerated container, the owner can view its location and see a digital audit trail of any delays or breakdowns. It's much like a black box recorder on a plane.

"IoT applications provide real-time audit trails, notifications, and monitoring of shipments from producer to retailer," says Chapman. "Each partner in the chain can have access to all information as the shipment is in transit."

From networked farms and climate sensors to activity trackers and drones, the IoT, big data and the cloud is quickly finding fertile ground.

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