Wireless internet for the 100+ hectare farm office

These LPWAN systems use large towers that can transfer data from thousands of IoT-compatible sensors or devices over very long distances – reported to be around 30km, but as far as 200km in ideal conditions.

LPWAN systems send or receive only small amounts of data at regular intervals rather than continuously. This means that sensors are on-line only when transmitting so have a very low power demand and can be run on small batteries, making them easy to install almost anywhere on the farm. Once a farm is within range of an LPWAN system, the farm-wide network is effectively ready for sensor connections.

The systems are currently being installed nationwide by IoT providers Spark, Kordia and Kotahi.Net – check their websites for progress in your area. IoT providers may sell an entire system from sensor to software, or provide ‘data-as-a-service’ where any compatible sensor can be plugged in and integrated into existing or new software. The latter may appeal to current technology providers and new-to-market innovators.

If you’re thinking that we’ve had smart devices measuring things on farm and connecting through the internet for at least a decade, you’re right. In our sector, we’re a little more conservative and call this precision farming.

We’ve been examining opportunities for precision agriculture and the value it offers dairy farmers. This has been part of the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain Primary Growth Partnership programme, a seven-year, $170 million innovation investment led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered with the Ministry for Primary Industries.

What IoT is essentially offering is, in innovation terms, a ‘better mouse trap’ – a product better than the last iteration. But before we get too excited about any new product like this, we should first consider the need for it.

We’ve observed some very good precision farming technologies but few farmers are currently using them. For example, some dairy farmers are using animal monitoring systems to measure indicators such as activity, rumination, eating patterns, milking and milk quality characteristics to identify changes in health, performance, or reproductive status.

On the land, farmers are using precision technologies in fertiliser, effluent and water application to support best practice resource management. Remote data access means that specialists support farmer decision-making without the cost of a farm visit.

The most common limitations to more widespread use of current technologies, both here and internationally, include the cost of sensors, lack of a fast or ultra-fast (or any) broadband infrastructure in many rural areas, costs associated with farm-wide data transmission and limited value from decision support systems. Add to that a slow uptake of computer skills on farm and reluctance to change current practices that are working ‘well enough’ right now.

You can see from this that something transformational is needed to push farming into the digital era.

IoT is anticipated to be that catalyst for change.

It will provide many opportunities to improve resource and labour efficiencies through enhanced monitoring and decision support systems.

We will see the use of simple sensors for simple tasks, for example, checking that all roadside gates are closed at night. We will also see highly intelligent farm management software that integrates on- and off-farm data and displays key information to support farmers in daily operational and tactical management decisions.

The initial value proposition of IoT systems is the significantly lower costs of sensors and data transmission. IoT promises operating costs at a fraction (perhaps a tenth) that of current precision farming systems, which is essential in our low-cost farming operations.

Farmers handy with their smartphone or computer should experience few new issues with IoT, but there will be limitations. IoT is unlikely to be suitable for all applications, such as those requiring constant reporting of sensor data, transmission of large amounts of data or coverage of areas in ‘blackspots’ (e.g. gullies).

Current monitoring systems may have a role here, separately or integrated with an IoT system.

Many new IoT-ready devices will soon appear on the market with much fanfare and hype. It’s important to keep in mind that data collection is the easier part of the system. The real art and value of these data-rich systems is in interpretation and simple decision-ready information.

That requires technology providers to develop smart software that is designed for the needs of our farmers and their farm systems.

Like many of you I’m very keen to see how well this ‘new mouse trap’ will work. Who knows, in the future the the phrase may be ‘it’s the best thing since IoT’.

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