Reaping IoT benefits with smart agriculture


An Embedded article by Chad Steider

The Internet of Things (IoT) has permeated nearly every industry, increasing efficiency, productivity, and capabilities within homes, industrial buildings, and communities. The benefits of the IoT are also finding fertile ground in agricultural settings. The global agriculture sector is massive—employing over one-quarter of the world’s population—and its growing IoT adoption has the potential to vastly improve the industry’s sustainability and efficiency, while addressing global challenges caused by climate and socio-economic change.

Every year, agricultural overproduction, overconsumption, and supply chain issues cause a significant amount of waste of water, energy, and labor resources, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The agriculture industry also contributes to our increased carbon footprint, high levels of deforestation, and land degradation.

Technological development in the “smart agriculture” space is combatting some of these issues, in addition to enhancing food security, reducing emissions, boosting crop yield, and achieving better resource utilization. Wireless connectivity and IoT technology offer new solutions for the agricultural industry and are already generating noticeable economic benefits from the first harvest.

Wireless Use Cases in Agriculture IoT

So, what exactly is smart agriculture? To date, wireless connectivity has supported extensive restructuring in agriculture via technological innovation and digital transformation. Farmers can use processes like climate control and monitoring in their operations to automate laborious, expensive tasks and improve decision-making capabilities. With this technology and the data derived from it, it’s easier to identify large-scale patterns and small-scale issues right when they arise. Smart agriculture innovations aim to increase the quantity and quality of products while optimizing the human labor involved. Present-day farmers have many technologies available to them including:

  • Climate Conditions Monitoring: Sensors located across fields collect data from the environment for mapping climate conditions. This information is used to choose appropriate crops and better understand the crop yield a particular piece of land can support.
  • Greenhouse Automation: IoT sensors offer accurate, real-time information on conditions such as soil condition, lighting, temperature, and humidity.
  • Crop Management: Field sensors collect temperature, humidity, and lighting data used to detect anomalies and effectively prevent diseases or infestations that can harm the yield.
  • Cattle Monitoring and Management: IoT sensors are attached to cattle to monitor their location and health, allowing farmers to keep tabs on their animals and separate sick animals from the herd to avoid contamination.
  • Precision Farming: Precision farming improves efficiency with data-driven decisions and is one of the most widespread and effective applications for IoT in agriculture. Farmers implement sensors to collect a vast array of data on lighting, temperature, soil condition, humidity, CO2 levels, and pest infections. This data enables farmers to estimate the optimal amounts of water, fertilizers, and pesticides that their crops need. Ultimately, this approach reduces expenses and results in healthier crops.
  • Predictive Analytics: Precision agriculture and predictive data analytics go hand in hand. While IoT and smart sensor technologies are a goldmine for highly relevant, real-time data, the use of data analytics helps farmers make sense of it and come up with important predictions around crop harvesting time, the risks of diseases and infestations, yield volume, and more. While farming is inherently highly dependent on weather conditions, data analytics tools help make farming more manageable and predictable.

Wi-SUN Technology: An Open-Source Solution for Modern Farming

Crops need water and sun to grow…and they also may need Wi-SUN. Wi-SUN is a leading open-source, open-standard protocol for smart city and smart utility applications and is primed for smart agriculture as well. Wi-SUN builds on open-standard internet protocols (IP) and APIs, enabling developers to extend existing infrastructure platforms to add new capabilities. Built to scale with long-range capabilities, high-data throughput, and IPv6 support, Wi-SUN simplifies wireless infrastructure for industrial applications like smart agriculture. Wi-SUN field area networks (FAN) technology is ideally suited for outdoor IoT networks—and smart agriculture—as it offers strong range and reliability in outdoor settings.

Wi-SUN FAN consists of a border router, router node, and leaf node, and can operate in a full mesh or star topology. The border router node provides wide-area network (WAN) connectivity to FAN, maintains source routing tables, and controls node authentication and key management services. The router node controls upward and downward packet forwarding, while the leaf node offers minimum capabilities – mostly battery-operated sensor nodes. (Source: Silicon Labs)

Offerings for Open-Source and Proprietary Smart Agriculture

Like in many IoT applications, there are both proprietary and non-proprietary solutions used in smart agriculture with unique benefits. Proprietary solutions allow farmers to take a “walled garden” approach with complete control over their ecosystem and implementation. Whereas open-source solutions ensure interoperability across multiple device types and vendors. Depending on your application requirements, you can choose the approach tailored to your needs.

IoT providers like Silicon Labs are already offering cutting-edge hardware certified by the Wi-SUN Alliance. Silicon Labs EFR32FG25 System-on-Chip (SoC) features support for the Wi-SUN FAN1.1 spec, which consists of multiple radios and a 32-bit ARM® a Cortex®-M33 core with 97.5 MHz platform. With support for multi-rate OFDM, FSK, and multi-rate OQPSK modulations, the FG25 gives ultimate flexibility no matter what modulation scheme best fits your application. The addition of USB, up to 37 GPIO, and worldwide frequency support make the FG25 a great solution for Wi-SUN or other large proprietary networks.

While Wi-SUN is a great fit for some IoT agriculture applications, others are better suited for a proprietary approach. These applications don’t need the complexity and overhead that come with a standardized mesh approach or may have mobile assets that are not easily supported by standardized approaches. With low-power SoCs like Silicon Labs’ EFR32FG23, customers can develop their own low-power, point-to-point, or star networks aligned to their needs. The FG23 supports worldwide frequency bands FSK, O-QPSK, and OOK modulations—giving it the flexibility that’s needed for proprietary implementations. It also features configurable output power up to +20 dBm, making it an ideal long-range connectivity solution for some IoT applications in agriculture.

Growing the Agriculture Industry of the Future

With an ever-growing world population and increasing impacts of climate change, it is vital that the agriculture industry use all means available to optimize output and increase its sustainability. Smart agriculture and its myriad use cases provide solutions for farmers at every step of the agriculture supply chain—enabling new levels of insights and data analytics from the soil to the air. IoT developers already have smart agriculture solutions ready to go for customers across the sector, with SoCs suited for both proprietary and open-source applications. As protocols like Wi-SUN enable stronger outdoor networks, farmers can look forward to reaping the rewards of their IoT journey.

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