Soil to Sale: IoT and Agriculture

Soil to Sale: IoT and Agriculture
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No one will argue that the food supply chain is critical to the success of any economy.  So, any actions to optimize the end-to-end flow of food products and to enhance the quality and efficacy of the supply chain is welcome.  It is said that the end-to-end supply of food is only a seven day old cycle.  This means if some anomaly interfered with the supply chain from getting food delivered to the markets, cities would run out of food within a week.  This is a fragile supply chain.  Yet, it is still largely a manual one built on practices and business models continuously used for the past 100 years.  It is ripe for a major overhaul and update.  A fresh approach is needed.

Once I stopped at a supermarket to pick up a few items. Normally I stay pretty well stocked up on food and supplies, so I keep a running list and make a habit of crossing items off.

When I walked into the produce section and encountered a shocking scene, I was momentarily stunned. Instead of the mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables piled high like I am accustomed to seeing, instead I was met with the sight of bare shelves and empty bins.

An expanse of empty shelves in a big regional chain store is unnerving. We all realize that it does happen in extenuating circumstances, such as a blizzard or hurricane.  And it is not unusual to find very few choices of hams available the day before Easter or the hot dog buns sold out before a long holiday weekend.  But to find produce suddenly stripped bare on a random day?  We are not used to that.

Temporary signs were posted at the entrance, asking customers to excuse the appearance inside and citing the reason as being a recent warehouse fire.  In a first-world society where goods are easily acquired and food is abundant, we can afford to be dismissive of such notifications.

So, what is the answer?  How can this situation be forever averted in the future?

The classic agricultural supply chain has five stages to it.  These components include:

  1. Suppliers
  2. Farm
  3. Transport
  4. Distribution
  5. Retail

Each of these supply chain components can be deconstructed into elements used to create the components.  This graphic shows some of these elements.

Agri 2

The application of the Internet of Things (IoT) to every step within this supply chain adds visibility to the food products and increases the situational awareness of these products to drive food safety, freshness, business efficiency, and ultimately to lower costs.

The deployment of IoT is not without some business pain and technical challenges that can be disruptive.  But, transforming any business is a highly disruptive process by its very nature, so challenges are to be expected.  Attacking each issue and addressing problems is how we overcome these obstacles.  However, the pain of implementing a comprehensive digital transformation is causing some food producers to drag their feet.  Delaying however could put their businesses at risk, potentially causing their businesses to fall behind and ultimately fail.  Implementing IoT solutions offer the opportunity to sustain their business leadership, the ability to scale, and create new types of sales/revenues, as well as cost savings.  No matter what the industry, there are partners aplenty eager to help enterprises transform their operations via the extraordinary power of fully deployed IoT systems.

Veg

Some of the technologies used in the supply chain include, but are not limited to the following:

Suppliers – Sensors can be used on subcontracted farm equipment to measure performance of engines, depth of plowed furrows, dispersion of fertilizer, geolocation of watering, and more.  Materials and supplies can be tagged to indicate age and manufacturing batch numbering for tracking and logging.

Farm – Sensors can measure the temperature, acidity, and moisture in the soils. Sunshine, air temperature, wind speed and direction, and rainfall can also be recorded too. Sensors can also be used to detect nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK) levels in the soil.  IoT networks that are star (long range) or mesh (higher data rates) topologies can collect the data from the farm and bring it to a central point at the farm.  A small sized IT closet is needed at the farm to hold some of the computing and internetworking equipment.  This equipment is backed up with a UPS and genset and connected to the internet for subsequent advanced analyses and storage/archiving.

Transport – Shipping fresh produce can be the source of several problems that IoT can help to identify.  Sensors on trucks that record impacts, hard braking, tilts, load shifts, idle dwell times, location, temperature, humidity, gas and vapour emissions, and more can provide valuable information concerning the potential for negative impacts to the food products as it is transported upstream to the markets.

Distribution – Storage conditions at the warehouses and distribution centres can greatly impact produce.  How long is it stored?  What temperature and humidity is recorded while it is stored?  Where is it stored?  How long was it on the loading dock and therefore potentially exposed to adverse weather?  All of these questions can be validated with IoT sensors and microcomputers tagged to the skids of product.

Retail – Once delivered to the point of sale, what are the impacts to the produce at the retailers?  Awareness can be had at this final stage too.  Similar to the previous sensor measurements, the journey of the food products can be logged and recorded.  Appropriate shelf life and ‘Best Before Dates’ are critical information for consumers and IoT can provide this information in a proven and trusted manner.

Agr 1

Data Archives

Collecting the raw data and logging it for record-keeping is important.  But, making sense of the data with analytics and cognitive platforms hosted on the cloud brings this raw data to life and provides insights and understanding of the products journey from the farm to the fork.

Data Security

As we transition the agricultural industry, it is the use of artificial intelligence that has the greatest impact to produce quality products and get them to market effectively and cost efficiently.  By using blockchain technology, we can ensure the security and integrity of the data and the knowledge that is gathered from its movements.  Leveraging the cloud to store and host these requisite platforms saves building complex data centres at farm locations.  Simple IT closets are all that is needed at the farm to create edge computing sites (cloudlets) to exchange data from the field to the cloud.

External Sources of Data

The use of external data from alternate sources such as weather data that shared awareness of the national, regional, and local patterns and collaborates with the farm-based weather sensors enhances the processes and permit advanced preparation to handle adverse weather events and to protect the crops.  Assessing weather on the macro and micro levels provides the level of granularity to make vital decisions throughout the crop growing cycles.

Conclusions

The transformation of the agriculture industry is upon us.  Effective policy making for agricultural transformation needs to become more evidence-based over time.  IoT technologies with provide that evidence.  Policy makers should invest in making use of existing data and analytics to comparatively assess the costs and likely outcomes of different potential transformation programs. Evidence-based policy making builds better plans and integrates accountability into the systems responsible for implementing the policies.

Produce Aisle

In the end, the outcome desired is for cost effective, high quality, nutritious, healthy, and tasty food products to feed our population.  Food safety is always paramount too.  IoT can deliver on these promises to create this comprehensive end-to-end supply chain and provide the depth of situational awareness to make better and faster decision-making aimed at achieving these important goals.

References:

Boettiger, S., Denis, N., & Sanghvi, S. (2018). Successful agricultural transformations: Six core elements of planning and delivery. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved on October 12, 2018 from, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/successful-agricultural-transformations-six-core-elements-of-planning-and-delivery

Seadog’s Blog. (2015). Broad Scenario of India’s Cold-chain Development. Retrieved on October 12, 2018 from, https://seadogk.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/broad-scenario-indias-cold-chain/

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.

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