IoT and agri-tech offer exciting developments in new field


With all the talk of smart cities being the focus of where IoT technology and sensors can take us, we sometimes forget that outside of the cities is where some of the most exciting applications of the technology can occur in agri-tech.

When you think of it, agriculture is not just crying out for technologies that could increase efficiency and reduce workload, but will soon be a necessity as the world’s population increases exponentially every decade which means more mouths to feed.

A United Nations report analysing population growth across the world has determined that the world population will be close to 10 billion people by 2075 which certainly means that the food we grown and eat will need to be done a lot faster, on a grander scale and with considerable less wastage.

With this in mind, centres like the Tyndall National Institute based in University College Cork (UCC) is busy developing the actual hardware that is aiming to migrate from the labs and into the fields, and even animals, on Ireland’s and the world’s farms.

Looking specifically at Ireland for a moment, the development of the agriculture sector is considered vital to our economy, as much as pharmaceuticals or foreign-direct investment, as it accounts for nearly 10% of the population’s workforce and contributes €7bn per year in revenues.

The only problem being that the land we live in is actually quite different to other larger nations as our soil is anything but homogenous.

This makes it difficult when deciding how to distribute fertilisers across a vast plot of land as putting it in one part of the land, depending on how much nitrogen and phosphate nutrients are in the soil, can have a greater yield.

To help with this, the Tyndall Institute is developing nanosensors that can be placed in the soil and wirelessly transmit real-time data back to the farmer to let them know where to distribute it for the greatest efficiency.

The nanosensors made their public debut at the recent National Ploughing Championships and, according to Tyndall’s deputy head of micro and nano systems, circuits and systems, Dr Alan Mathewson, they got a great response from farmers and from Teagasc.

“The response at the National Ploughing Championships showed a lot of excitement [from attendees],” he said. “It was the first time they’ve seen this as normally they have to get soil analysis with samples done at a lab to get their farm profile.”

It’s not just in the soil though where technology is rapidly gaining ground in IoT technologies, but also the animals themselves and in particular, the diagnosis of Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD).

Once entering a farm, BVD can have a devastating effect on a farm’s livestock which means its rapid identification is critical for herd protection and prevention of costly herd outbreaks that had once cost the Irish economy €102 million a year prior to 2012.

By placing a sample of the suspected cow’s blood on the BVD diagnostic device which contains four independent gold nanosensor channels per chip, a farmer can get a result in less than five minutes, rather than weeks in a lab.

Going hand-in-hand with the state of our bovine stocks and equally important to securing Ireland’s agriculture industry is our milk supply, especially given that 15pc of the world’s entire supply of powdered milk is produced here in Ireland.

With the help of €625,000 in funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine’s FIRM programme, members of Tyndall’s IoT development team have been working on a portable biosensor to detect spore forming harmful bacteria of environmental origins that may enter the dairy supply chain.

Partnering with Teagasc, Tyndall says it is developing a biosensor that will allow on-site, in-line and real-time testing of milk to ensure that harmful spore-forming bacteria, which can survive pasteurisation, do not reach harmful levels.

What all of this technology is showing, it seems, is that the old stereotypes that farmers are traditionalists and not keen on adopting new technologies on the farm couldn’t be more wrong.

Farmers are really well clued into technology aspects of what makes the business tick. And there’s a lot of people now with science degrees doing farming and understanding the benefits of technology can bring them,” Dr Mathewson says.

With this backing from those actually producing the food for us and the world, Dr Mathewson says that the technology they’re developing in IoT leads to incredible opportunities.

“I’m very excited about the possibility for IoT to be applied to agriculture specifically, as it’s an area that benefits Ireland in many ways,” he says.

“It gives us the possibility to create an industry that can be used across the world. If we can deal with making the measurements and handling the data analysis that comes from it, we can do a lot of things on ICT for agriculture that could be exported.”

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