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IoT solutions for Precision Agriculture

Sustainable farming practices and optimum profitability in agriculture require ICTs based approaches. Farmers should leverage on emerging technologies which are at the heart of Precision Agriculture. It is all thanks to tech companies which are bringing up e-agriculture solutions and technologies to enhance production.  There is a need for increased agricultural productivity so as to meet future food demand for the ever-growing world population which currently stands at 7,8 billion and projected to reach 9,9 billion by 2050.

Precision Agriculture – which according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation involves data-based technologies, satellite positioning systems like GPS, remote sensing and the internet to manage crops and reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and water – is the way to go for sustainable intensive farming practices.

Farmers should ensure maximum utilisation of the land, integrating modern technologies to also cope with the impacts of climate change and the shortage of arable land. Intensive farming systems despite giving high net profit returns per hectare, have negative impacts such as eutrophication and salination.

With Precision Agriculture, such negative impacts can be reduced or avoided as application of both chemicals and fertilizers is timely and informed. According to UnivDatos Market Insights, a market research firm, “the precision agriculture practices guide farmers in several crucial activities such as choosing right time to plant, right amount of fertilizer or pesticide to be used for overall yield.”

The practicality of Precision Agriculture is evidenced by the increase in the adoption of Smart Agriculture techniques in several countries and that global Precision Agriculture market which was valued at US$ 4,355.9 million in 2018 is expected to display reasonable CAGR of 16,8% over the forecast period (2019-2025) as according to UnivDatos Market Insights. In Zimbabwe, tertiary institutions through the education 5.0 and innovation hubs should drive the adoption of Precision Agriculture through home grown ICTs solutions.

One of the major strides in the implementation of Precision Agriculture is the integration of Internet of Things in farming. According to IoT Agenda, IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

Such data collection and transfer systems are already available and developing countries should not be left behind as the future needs more food than before. Data Solutions Group (DSG) for instance have come up with IoT based services which can be adopted for Precision Agriculture.

Farmers can use DSG’s Ultrasonic Distance Sensor for measuring grain level in a silo or a liquid in a container. The system uses ultrasound to measure the distance to an object, a high frequency sound wave is emitted by the device, measuring the time it takes for the wave to reach the object and then return to the sensor.

They have a range of IoT systems which also include a Stem Micro-Variation which can be used at a precision farm. This sensor according to DSG allows investigating effects of irrigation rate and environmental factors on water balance and plant growth.

The system used in the Save Valley Conservancy can also be modelled for herd monitoring. In 2018, four elephant bulls aged between 20 and 25 years were fitted with GPS collars in a bid to better understand the bulls’ movements.

These elephants were suspected of destroying the fields outside the conservancy, hence the need to monitor their movements. Similarly, suspected straying animals on the farm can also be fitted with GPS collars to track their movements and the herd can also be fitted with sensors to monitor its health.

Moreover, notching – a monitoring tool whereby an individual animal can be identified – which has been used in wildlife management and in piggery can also be modelled for herd management. Animals can be identified by an individual number expressed in the relative positions of a combination of notches, and no two animals can have the same combination of notches. Individual animals can therefore be identified in order to monitor population health and performance.

The observation and monitoring of notched animals can also be aided by the use of drones fitted with sensors to collect data on the animals for analysis. Captured images of notched animals can help better understand herd management. Individual animals can be easily spotted, health checks can be easily done on each individual animal thus taking technology first in herd management.

 Collars or tags with sensors can also monitor temperature, location, blood pressure etc. which can send the information to the farmer. The information can then be retrieved and analysed for herd management.

Researchers such as Xin Sun, an assistant professor at North Dakota University, are taking Precision Agriculture to the future. Vanessa Ho says that Sun is developing robots equipped with sensors and cameras to detect and kill weeds with precision. He is also famous for his “Weedbot”, an autonomous weed identifying system. Such technologies will not only advance Precision Farming, but also improve productivity.

With IoT, farmers can monitor crop performance from anywhere. Market gardeners can take advantage of smart greenhouses to maximise yields, while reducing costs and negative environmental impacts.

Smart greenhouses can replace the conventional ones, which require manual intervention to monitor greenhouse environment parameters for better crop management. The greenhouses can be fitted with sensors that can measure the environmental parameters in relation to plant requirements. IoT engineers have noted that it is possible to create a cloud server for remotely accessing the system when it is connected using IoT.

With smart greenhouses for instance, sensors can be used to monitor water consumption via SMS alerts to the farmer with an online portal as noted by Savaram Ravindra. Moreover, Chameleon and Wetting Front Detector Sensors can be installed with the object of cutting down irrigation frequency and increasing productivity.

Day-old-chicks for instance require certain environmental parameters which include temperature and ventilation, hence monitoring can also be done using these sensors.

It is scientifically known that in the first days of breeding, poultry require a higher ambient temperature and sensors can control actuators to automatically turn on fans or heaters or open windows, hence precision poultry management.

Innovative ideas employed in agriculture are oriented towards reducing the cost of production and environmental impacts, avoid wasting resources and maximising production. There is a great potential for sustainable intensive farming systems in Zimbabwe and Precision Agriculture should be given much attention.

– Justin Salani, farm technology enthusiast

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