Farming for the future with the Internet of Things

I was never really inspired by the notion of the Internet of Things (IoT), probably for several reasons.

It might well be handy for your fridge to tell you when you’re out of milk (or even order some more up), for the TV to be able to speak to the toaster and to be able to turn the heating up when you’re heading home from work.

But somehow these sort of things didn’t really chime in the farming world - and even if they did then the chances are that the poor connectivity in many farms and rural areas, with dial-up broadband speeds and mobile signal not-spots, would hamper any communication, no matter how brief.

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And I think this has put a lot of farmers off even thinking about the concept of smart gadgets - so a recent on-line conference (yes, complete with the usual ‘your internet connection is unstable’ warning) was a bit of an eye-opener.

For it looks like a radio signal system called LoRaWAN (low-power long-range wide-area network) - has the capability to connect almost every area of many farms without the need for either a broadband connection nor a mobile phone signal, working instead from a central base unit most likely attached to the roof of a shed which can send out and receive the necessary signals.

And on top of the ability to allow messages to be exchanged, the huge - and growing - range of sensors which can be linked into the system actually look like they’ll be able to do far more than ensure your fridge always has enough milk in it or that the kettle is boiling for that important cup of tea just after your favourite TV programme has finished.

These fairly cheap and cheerful sensors can measure a huge range of variables which can actually provide you with useful information, warn you when something has gone wrong and even save you some of the hours taken up each day spent simply checking up on things - saving an awful lot of time, labour and travelling.

These sensors can warn you if there’s a leak in a cattle water trough, keep tabs on bulk temperatures in the grain store (and log them for assurance scheme compliance), operate irrigation systems and give you an advanced warning if the environmental conditions in the cattle shed threaten to encourage an outbreak of pneumonia amongst the calves aren’t as expensive as you might imagine.

And working through the LoRaWAN protocol they don’t need sim cards or mobile phone contracts to support them.

The small group of farmers in Scotland who have been trying out the concept under a project organised by the co-operative umbrella organisation, SAOS, found them to be reasonably reliable and pretty much farm-proof as well.

On top of this power consumption is supposed to be pretty low so you don’t need to be constantly re-charging or changing batteries - and the sort of simple sensors which monitor soil moisture and temperature and which can help with decisions on when to make fertiliser applications have battery lives measured in years.

Other uses include keeping track of vehicles - for security reasons and also for management purposes - can be combined with information on work rate, fuel usage and engine performance.

But those testing the systems found that lone worker safety - with a personnel beacon which can not only signal if something has gone wrong but also where that worker is - was viewed as one of the major benefits.

So it’s good to see Scotland getting a foot on this ladder - although with only a handful of farms involved in LoRaWAN pilot projects, we’re probably not leading the field on this front.

The state government in Victoria, Australia has rolled out hundreds of LoRaWAN-based IoT networks and the Welsh Government is underwriting installation of the base units on the country’s 18 monitor farms.

With the potential to harness the predictive and recording abilities of these sensors to encourage and verify the adoption of sustainable farming practices, they could also play a key role in auditing and the next generation of climate change and sustainability-focused support schemes – meaning less paperwork and leaving us more time for the actual job of managing our farms.

And at a time when ScotGov is setting up pilot projects for new policy measures, further state-funded investigation of this technology must surely play a part.