Around the world, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all freshwater use. I study computers and information technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, where we tackle sustainability and environmental challenges with interdisciplinary research into the agriculture internet of things (ag-IoT).
In agriculture, the IoT involves technologies such as wireless underground communications, subsurface sensing and antennas in soil. These systems help farmers track conditions on their land in real time and apply water and other inputs such as fertilizer exactly when and where they are needed.
In particular, monitoring conditions in the soil has great promise for helping farmers use water more efficiently. Sensors can now be wirelessly integrated into irrigation systems to provide real-time awareness of soil moisture levels. Studies suggest that this strategy can reduce water demand for irrigation by anywhere from 20 percent to 72 percent without hampering daily operations on crop fields.
Even in dry places such as the Middle East and North Africa, farming is possible with efficient water management. But extreme weather events driven by climate change are making that harder. Recurrent droughts in the western United States over the past 20 years, along with other disasters like wildfires, have caused billions of dollars in crop losses.
Water experts have measured soil moisture to inform water management and irrigation decisions for decades. Automated technologies have largely replaced hand-held soil moisture tools because it is hard to take manual soil moisture readings in production fields in remote locations.
In the past decade, wireless data harvesting technologies have begun to provide real-time access to soil moisture data, which makes for better water management decisions. These technologies could also have many advanced IoT applications in public safety, urban infrastructure monitoring and food safety.
The agricultural IoT is a network of radios, antennas and sensors that gather real-time crop and soil information in the field. To facilitate data collection, these sensors and antennas are interconnected wirelessly with farm equipment. The ag-IoT is a complete framework that can detect conditions on farmland, suggest actions in response and send commands to farm machinery.
Interconnecting devices such as soil moisture and temperature sensors in the field makes it possible to control irrigation systems and conserve water autonomously. The system can schedule irrigation, monitor environmental conditions and control farm machines, such as seed planters and fertilizer applicators. Other applications include estimating soil nutrient levels and identifying pests.
Integrating satellite-based network connectivity with the ag-IoT can assist nonconnected farms where broadband connectivity is still unavailable. Researchers are also developing vehicle-mounted and mobile ag-IoT platforms that use drones. Systems like these can provide continuous connectivity in the field, making digital technologies accessible for more farmers in more places.
Abdul Salam is assistant professor of computer and information technology at Purdue University. This article was excerpted from Salam’s full report, which was published by The Conversation, and can be read in full here.