The world's food producers are facing a big problem: The rising global population means the world will need to increase food production by as much as 70 percent over the next 30 years. With the acreage of farmland remaining constant, how will this goal be met?
The obvious answer is to continue increasing crop yields, which is what farmers, engineers and scientists have been doing for the past two centuries to boost food production to feed a relentlessly-growing global population.
To boost crop yields even more, agribusiness is putting the internet of things to work to enable precision agricultural techniques.
For instance, Sakata Seed America, a company that produces a wide range of vegetable seeds for farmers, has worked with Infosys and the Industrial Internet Consortium to complete one phase of a precision crop management test bed.
For its test project, Sakata used in-ground sensors, drone imagery and a data integration and a analytics platform to boost beet seed production by almost 34 percent, or from 450 grams of seeds per plant to 525 grams per plant, according to Monty McCoy, Director of IT for Sakata America.
Sakata's sensors collected data on moisture, temperature and electrical conductivity, which is a way to measure fertility of nutrients available to the plant, McCoy said. That data is combined and correlated with visual data collected by agronomists walking the field or from drones flying over the fields.
Project technicians could see in near real-time if certain areas of the crop needed help in some way and they responded with spot adjustments to water, fertilizer or other treatments as soon as possible, increasing the yield as the season progressed.
McCoy admits that despite the success in boosting seed yields, the bigger benefit to Sakata was the data platform built with Infosys. With it, the company has been able to unlock data stuck in Enterprise Resource Planning systems and start using it to analyze field data to create a more efficient production process overall.
"Our process was what we really needed to understand—the process of how we grow the seeds in the field—that's our real expertise," McCoy said in an interview with eWeek. "We learned ... to make better decisions about where we are growing our seeds and thereby increasing the yields just by helping [growers] make better choices and better decisions."
The combination of sensor data with eyes in the sky—either from satellites or drones—is giving farmers new ways to measure the health of plants, which is spurring new investment and partnerships in the smart agriculture space.
Last month Microsoft announced a partnership with drone maker DJI to enable drones to capture NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) data to produce color-coded pictures of field heath. Another firm in this area, Ceres Imaging, closed $25 million in a new round of funding led by Insight Venture Partners and Romulus Capital.
Sakata isn’t finished with its IoT development efforts; it is only beginning. McCoy said the company has already gone through several iterations of the data platform to create better and more meaningful analytics dashboards for field and production staff.
By themselves, the efforts of Sakata, Infosys and others working in the field of smart agriculture, won’t solve the growing world food crisis, but they have created promising new tools that could point the way to new successes.
The next phase, which is in the planning stages, is to further leverage the data platform while trying to find improved sensor types that are smaller and have better connectivity. “We have real power that we are getting out of the analytics portion,” McCoy said.
“We want to see if we can get a little sharper from a technology standpoint; we are going to need additional support from the sensor industry” in the form of improved sensors that are more mobile, more adaptable, with a smaller resource requirements.
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.