Where are we today and 3 key trends for 2018

Adoption of digital technology in agriculture is rapidly changing the sector

Traditionally farmers and growers have made decisions based on their personal experience, combined with interpreting local conditions. Triggers such as weather patterns, how soil has typically performed and how animals behave or appear, have been the main tools for growers for centuries. However, as more and more technological options become available, it is easier for growers, agronomists and technology service providers to access data and the analyses that come with them, in order to enhance their decision making process.

So what does digital agriculture constitute? Digital Ag, or Precision Agriculture, is a farm management concept centred around the belief that growers need to measure and respond to inter and intra-field variability in crops, or individual animal metrics in herds, instead of treating everything the same. In practice this can mean for example that within a field, growers apply different amounts of seed, chemical, or fertilisers to different areas, based on satellite imagery, crop sensors, soil variability or other metrics. Or in the case of a dairy herd, farmers monitor individual milk production and the amount of feed available differs per cow.

In both examples above there is a flow of information (collecting data, making it available on a user-friendly platform), an interpretation (what does this information practically mean for my the decision making process) and an execution (variable rate spreading of fertiliser and tailoring the amount of feed for a cow based on the transponder number worn by the cow). Digital agriculture aims to improve industry metrics such as yield, profit and sustainability by providing information, helping to interpret it, and finally assisting with the execution of this information.

Digital agriculture however is also set to transform other parts of the sector such as commodity trading, purchasing of inputs, and tractability of products. In this article we discuss three key technologies that are currently changing the digital agriculture landscape – the internet of things, blockchain and data storage platforms – each of which are set to be transformative within the next 12 to 24 months.

IoT helps actively measure and manage crops

Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which are networks of physical devices that collect data and are able to connect and exchange this data, are set to rapidly advance digital agriculture. When we can measure metrics such as plant-specific nutrient levels, leaf wetness, photosynthetic active radiation and relative humidity to just name a few, not in just one spot, but in multiple spots in a field, we can start to actively manage crops based on this information.

Depending on the size of a farm and the crops that are planted, weather conditions change through the farm and fields. By using sensor data, crop management decisions can be tailored to these micro-climates once they are identified. The same goes for plant based sensors; once we can measure plant based metrics in a sample size that can be seen as representative for the field, fertiliser and other input applications can be tailored to this data.

Despite its potential, the IoT is not quite ready to be adopted by mainstream farmers due to ongoing challenges with network connectivity in rural areas. Furthermore, edge computing and machine learning capabilities also need to be improved before data from IoT devices can be utilised to their full potential. Finally, data security and data storage issues need to be resolved as well, to safely accommodate the large amount of data that IoT devices will generate. Technology providers and growers are increasingly working together to solve these aforementioned issues, and as a result we expect to see the rapid adoption of IoT solutions in the next 12-24 months.

Blockchain technology is key to organising big data

Blockchain is an electronic ledger that can be used to capture, organise and validate data in almost every aspect of digital agriculture. Blockchain technology is particularly necessary when it comes to IoT based data collection, but it will also be just as transformative in other aspects of agriculture.

Blockchain technology is already being used for trading commodities and in January 2018 the first major international agricultural trade was completed using blockchain. This trade, involving a shipment of soybeans from the US to China, involved five different major parties between banks, merchant and purchaser. Blockchain technology can include contracts and certificates that can be executed by the blockchain which makes complex transactions, such as those seen with agricultural commodities, easier to execute. International agricultural commodity shipments include shipping paperwork, sanitation certification, and credit letters, that in traditional trades take a lot of time to verify by all parties; blockchain can make these transactions quicker, cheaper, and easier to execute which will benefit everyone involved from production to consumption.

In the next 12 – 24 months blockchain technology will become evermore present in the field of digital agriculture; as IoT devices are starting to get utilised, blockchain technology will be used to capture, organise and validate this data. Blockchain technology will also transform other aspects of the agricultural sector – fresh produce that is sold in supermarkets and other outlets for example is set to benefit from blockchain technology by offering accurate traceability to the exact spot where it was harvested. When quality issues or food safety issues are encountered in the supply chain, blockchain provides a quick and easy way to trace the issue to its origin and take appropriate action in a timely manner.

Data storage platforms, the backbone of digital agriculture

Data storage platforms are crucial in order for IoT and blockchain technology to function, but data storage in agriculture is more complicated than it might be in other sectors. The first issue that gets raised by growers, agronomists and others is data security and who can access this data. The problem with agricultural data is that most of it is geospatial; every single bit of data collected in the field is linked to a GPS coordinate in order for it to be useful for analyses. Due to having these location coordinates embedded in the data, it is physically impossible to anonymise data as can be done with most other data sets.

However, in order for a group of growers to extract maximum value from their data, an analysis and comparison of ‘big data’ is crucial. Instead of just looking at the data of your own farm, comparing your data with data from a large group of fellow farmers yields more insights as to what management practices could be changed to create a positive change. In other words: a lot is to be gained by everyone involved to make all data from a large group of farms accessible to certain parties so that analysis on the whole data set can be performed in order to realise maximum value for individual participants.

But once data is shared with others, who has access to it? Will banks, insurance companies or commodity merchants get access at some point and use this data against growers when negotiating new deals? As every individual data point has a GPS location assigned to it, it can be traced back to an individual field within seconds… And who owns this data? No court of law has yet made any decision about this, and agricultural data can be either real property, personal property or intellectual property, depending on how it is looked upon. Therefore any party involved in creating, collecting, and analysing agricultural data, can own this very data. How are service providers going to handle this and how does this influence the design of data infrastructure and services?

The analyses of large amounts of data also raises the issue of how many data storage platforms we need in agriculture, as well as the interoperability of said platforms. With the introduction of IoT devices, an enormous amount of data will be created and the combination of this data with data created by satellites, tractors and other equipment, will enable new analyses to be performed. However, for this to become reality, this data needs to be on the same platform or on platforms that are integrated. So does each technology provider need their own data storage platform, or maybe one platform for the whole industry or some other solution? The industry still needs to converge on this decision.

Furthermore, currently a lot of data is stored on individual devices, but a move can already be seen towards cloud based storage. In order to stop data from being compartmentalised, cloud based storage platforms and the links between these platforms and collection devices is crucial. As internet connectivity in rural regions is often poor, LPWAN, LoRaWAN and other technologies have to be explored in order to make the transmission of mass-collected data easy and efficient.

The challenge for the next 12-24 months will be to see how the agricultural sector can derive maximum value from the data that it collects, once issues such as platform design, connectivity and data security have been sorted out. There will be a clear advantage here for early adopters.

Expertise is key for success in digital agriculture

As can be seen in the ‘digital revolutions’ that have taken place in other sectors, there is clear advantage in agriculture for companies to lead the change to a world where digital agriculture will play a major role for everyone in the industry. By using the right equipment, apps and other software, stakeholders from farmers to technology service providers, can set themselves up for success. However, issues such as data security, data sharing, ownership and the traceability of data remain important matters to solve.
Due to the complexity of the issues raised above, it is advisable to partner with the right team that is experienced in creating technological solutions suited to very unique situations. Those businesses that take the right steps at this point in the digital revolution, will be well positioned to become leaders in the industry in the next two to five years.

The digital agriculture revolution