04 Dec 2019 19:57 IST

Leveraging IoT to ensure predictability in the farm sector

Devices such as sensors, agribots, drones and image processors can help farmers make informed decisions

Any casual reference to the agriculture sector nowadays promptly brings to mind terms such as unsustainable subsidies, loan waivers, rainfall deficit, weather-based cropping patterns, low productivity, and so on. As per the National Sample Survey (2018), agriculture is the only sector that registers profits from 60 per cent to 150 per cent, even for small landholdings, when factors such as rainfall and labour supply are consistent.

While market volatility-induced price fluctuations do affect the sector’s profitability, it is largely the production-side uncertainties, such as the monsoon, diseases, pests and labour inconsistency, that cause the bulk of the sector’s misfortunes.

Over the decades, both farmers and successive governments have seemingly become conditioned to the notion that unpredictability in the production stages (be it rains, diseases, pest attacks or labour supply) is there to stay and cannot be remedied. This acquiescing, “resigned to fate” mindset is visible in such governmental policies as loan waivers / loss compensation, farm insurance, and so on, all of which are reactive and not preventive.

Nevertheless, this notion is being rigorously challenged now. Advancements in IoT and smart agro practices are propelling the farm sector into the realm of prevention and prediction, in an affordable and accessible manner.

IoT in the farm sector

To demystify IoT in agriculture, it is all about deploying smart technologies such as interconnected sensors, alarms, automated bots and databases to increase predictability and resource conservation, and thereby achieve higher productivity and profitability. Reports from Allied Market Research state that the global agro IoT market is set to reach $49 billion by 2025, while the Machina Research Report cites that the number of IoT agricultural devices is expected to grow to 225 million units by 2024 globally.

India, with high-speed telecom data infrastructure registering high penetration, even in rural areas, is well placed to adapt this significant agro evolution. Our very own home-grown pioneers are breaking new ground in smart agro practices. Several of these technologies are already in vogue and being adopted rapidly across the farm sector — in crop cultivation, livestock and fisheries.

Tech and smart cultivation

IoT in cultivation involves the use of agro sensors, agribots (agricultural robots), harvest robots, drones and image processors to make informed decisions. A network of wireless IoT sensors across the fields at root depth can monitor a wide range of environmental and crop parameters. These sensors detect moisture content, acidity, weather, pest incidence, and other customised variables.

Such data is used to automate irrigation cycles via sprinklers thereby conserving water, fertiliser and other resources. Based on alarms triggered, remotely operated or automated agro drones perform the roles of crop dusting for pesticide or fertiliser spraying. In an advanced scenario, drones with inbuilt imaging systems monitor the health of crops and convey the progress on a real-time basis. Without being physically present, farmers can thus gain access to meaningful visual data to make crop management decisions at the right time.

All this is not distant science fiction but a day-to-day reality for a young engineer in Vijayawada – Gopi Raja, popularly known as Drone Raja. The son of a farmer, Gopi Raja, after his engineering studies, decided to support his father with smart tech, and founded Fopple Drone Technologies. At present, he serves not just his father but the farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with his fleet of agro drones, used on a daily basis for crop dusting, covering 10,000+ acres a year. Offering his drones on rental under a ‘pay as you use’ model, Raja has made the drones affordable, even to farmers with small landholdings of one acre.

Among the corporates, software giant TCS, has jumped into fray, collaborating with the farmers of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab to develop IoT technology that could detect late blight crop diseases through mobile apps.

Livestock management

Just as we wear smartwatches to monitor our fitness — counting calories, distance walked, sleep, and so on — now cattle also wear “wearable IoT tags” that tracks the animal’s biological parameters through a variety of sensors linked to the IoT database systems. These IoT devices tagged to individual animals monitor cattle health by tracking temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, reproductive cycles and calving period, and raise an alarm on detecting abnormalities. These devices, with inbuilt GPS, also assist animal location tracking and augment the data on grazing patterns.

Indian company Stellapps (an IIT Madras incubated start-up) has carved a niche in the field of smart livestock management. By using IoT taggers in livestock management, Stellapps has proven the IoT potential by increasing the milk yielding capacity of the cows by 20 per cent, reduced the calving period by one month and cutting expenses on cattle health by 50 per cent.

Optimising aquaculture

IoT lends itself to fisheries management wherein ponds installed with a network of IoT devices monitor parameters such as pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates and temperature to optimise growth and breeding potential. While commercial fish farms are yet to adopt these technologies, the investment for a mid-size farm of 2-4 acres ranges from ₹40,000 to ₹60,000, which pays for itself by the drastic reduction in loss to diseases and optimised feeding practices. While there are no dedicated domestic players focusing exclusively on smart aquaculture, the inter-operable nature of these IoT sensors makes adapting these techniques to aquaculture simpler.

In summary, smart IoT and related technologies can prove to be the panacea for the unpredictability factor that is weighing down the farm sector. While the use of smart agro practices has just begun in India, we are not lagging behind by a wide margin, as even farmers in the West are just warming up to the idea of IoT-based farming. Only 10 per cent of farmers in the West currently use some form of IoT, according to a research report from Alpha Brown.

As for India, agro-IoT technology has arrived in different forms. It is also affordable and accessible, as seen in the efforts of Drone Raja and Stellapps. While farmers too are receptive, the bigger challenge at present is about spreading awareness of these technologies that make agriculture predictable.

Private pioneers can only innovate; it is for the government to propagate awareness among farmers of new-age agro technologies through its strong grassroots infrastructure nodes, such as panchayats, farm co-operatives and agro-universities. In time, and with a wider awareness and adoption, the day is not far where agriculture could well become the aspirational career choice for millennials.

(The writer is a student at Xavier Institute of Management and Enterprise, Bengaluru.)