Three major obstacles for IoTs in agriculture
Dr. Chandra from FarmBeats on how the FarmBeats system uses Internet of Things (IoT) applications to support farmers and the three main obstacles that the agriculture sector faces in implementing IoT technology.
The 2018 CGIAR Big Data in Agriculture Platform Convention brought together agricultural researchers and data scientists to explore the potential future of farming in the digital age. A major theme during the convention was the issue of introducing the technologies of Big Data in farming regions where even basic internet access is sometimes a challenge.
One session titled “Digitizing Food Systems” featured a discussion with Dr. Ranveer Chandra, a Computer Science PhD and Principal Researcher at Microsoft. Dr. Chandra is spearheading FarmBeats, which is meant to enable data-driven farming and to empower farmers with affordable digital agriculture solutions..
In his presentation, Dr. Chandra explained how the FarmBeats system uses Internet of Things (IoT) applications to achieve its objective, and he described the three main obstacles that the agriculture sector faces in implementing IoT technology.
1. Poor Internet Connectivity in Farms
Most farms are located in remote locations where internet connectivity might not be strong enough to facilitate fast transmission speeds. Furthermore, communication lines may be obstructed by crops, canopies, and other physical barriers. He observes that these factors drive up the costs of data transmission and have been responsible for the slow uptake of precision technologies in agriculture. With the onset of Big Data, these costs could grow exponentially.
FarmBeats makes it possible for farmers to overcome this challenge by making use of vacant TV frequencies to transfer information. Dr. Chandra stated that this is especially advantageous in remote areas because poor TV reception often leads to the presence of White Spaces in TV broadcast frequencies, which are then available for use. The Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) broadcast bands are also capable of multiplying the strength of Wi-Fi signals, making them stronger. These advantages will reduce costs while increasing connectivity, thereby increasing uptake of precision farming technologies.
2. High Hardware Costs
Presently, farmers rely on a sparsely distributed network of sensors to gather data on farm conditions. In addition to the physical constraints of these sensors, Dr. Chandra also explained that they are expensive. He cited the example of a limited set of sensors, which can cost up to 8,000 USD. As a result, farmers continue relying on less advanced farming technologies which limits their productivity.
To overcome these costs, FarmBeats uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to enhance spatial coverage and establish precise maps. In areas where there are constraints on the use of drones—including government regulations, low battery life, and high costs—Tethered Eye helium balloons are used instead. These aerial sensors generate a stream of continuous images of the farm conditions, which are used to refine the data collected by sensors on the ground. As a result, this approach helps reduce hardware costs while facilitating more precise data collection.
3. Disrupted Connectivity to the Cloud
Like any other IoT system, FarmBeats is centered on a cloud computing system—in this case, Microsoft’s Azure Platform. However, the internet connectivity at farmers’ houses is often not strong enough to stream Big Data sets to the cloud for analysis. In addition, there might be sources of interference on farms, which also have negative impacts on the connection to the cloud.
Dr. Chandra explained that FarmBeats is designed to overcome disruptions to the connection between the farm and the cloud in a number of ways. These include offline capabilities, the presence of unique IoT gateways, deep learning via edge computing, and component migration. These features end-to-end IoT connectivity that makes it possible for FarmBeats to offer various agricultural services such as precision irrigation, pH detection, yield prediction, and micro-climate forecasting, even when the connection to the cloud computing system is not continuous.
Dr. Chandra explained that farmers need to embrace technologies that facilitate data-driven operations in order to improve yield, reduce operational costs, and ensure environmental sustainability. By helping farmers overcome these challenges for implementing IoT technology in rural areas, FarmBeats can help farmers realize all of the benefits of farming with data.
He concluded by stating that these and other functionalities are still in development but will make it possible for farmers to take advantage of precision farming techniques to run a more efficient and profitable enterprise.
Youth in Data media delegate at Platform's 2018 Convention
This is one of a series of blogs written by one of our Youth in Data media delegates who participated in the 2nd Big Data in Agriculture Convention in Nairobi, Kenya on 3-5 October 2018.