What exactly is IoT technology?


If you’ve spent any time reading anything about The Yield, you’ll have noticed that we talk about IoT. A lot.

And it’s not just us. IoT has been the buzzword of the tech industry for the past few years.

But what exactly does IoT mean?

Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to physical objects or hardware - from toasters to toothbrushes, fitness trackers to fridges – that collect data via sensors. Those objects then connect to other devices or networks, which take that data and transform it into a useful action or piece of information.

Take, for example, something like a fitness tracker.

In 2018, fitness and activity trackers are fairly ubiquitous. They take a few forms, but the most common is a band with a small screen that you wear on your wrist.

At its most basic, a fitness tracker contains something called an accelerometer, which collects data on your movements. But on its own, that data isn’t particularly useful. In fact, if you looked at the raw data collected by your fitness tracker, you’d be presented with data that looks something like this.

Source: http://www.devx.com/wireless/Article/44799

That table might contain a lot of information, but it won’t make meeting your fitness goals any easier. And that’s where a fitness tracker moves from just a device that measures something, to a fully-connected IoT solution. Once a fitness tracker has collected the above data, that data is passed through various algorithms, and then presented back to the owner as useful information, often via an app on their smartphone. Now, instead of a meaningless dump of data, the owner can see important fitness metrics – such as steps taken, calories burned, floors climbed, and active minutes.

The Internet of Things marries hardware (or ‘things’) with data sensors and analytics to produce information, and presents that information to end users via internet-connected devices. And when done right, IoT solutions create efficiency, by making interactions with devices more contextual and our devices more intuitive and responsive to what we need. 


IoT in agriculture

While a lot of the buzz around IoT has been centred around consumer-facing products (like the above-mentioned fitness trackers), IoT is also changing the way industries work. Agriculture is especially well-placed to take advantage of all that IoT has to offer, as an industry constantly under pressure to increase output as global populations continue to grow.

Using smart IoT technologies, growers can collect valuable data on soil, water, crops, farm inputs – the essential elements farms need to know and track. That data can then be transformed into information that helps to increase efficiency, maximise yield and mitigate the risk and uncertainty from weather.

Australian growers in particular can benefit enormously from the adoption of IoT-based solutions, given our often-unforgiving climate. That’s why Australian agtech companies are taking the world by storm, with two local IoT agtech companies taking out awards at the recent Agfunder Global Innovation Awards in San Francisco.

Smart Shepherd, based in Armidale, is using IoT technology to tackle some of the known challenges with collecting pedigree data in the livestock space. Their solution requires farmers to tag mothers and offspring in their herd with ‘smart tags’, enabling farmers to collect incredibly accurate pedigree data in a fraction of the time of traditional methods.

And here at The Yield, we’re using IoT technology to provide growers with real-time information on their microclimate as well as 7-day predictions, helping them to plan activities like irrigation with more confidence.

When it comes to IoT, it’s the analysis of data that’s crucial. It’s not simply about putting sensors in the ground to collect data – it’s about taking that data and turning it into information growers can use to improve their performance. This is done via analytics using tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning.


Connectivity and security

There’s no denying that IoT has taken many industries by storm, from consumer goods to logistics. And even though agriculture generally has low rates of digitisation, especially compared to other industries, it’s tipped to revolutionise the industry in the next few years.

In Australia, however, agricultural technology faces some unique challenges. Many growers don’t consider themselves to be in a position to keep up with technology and its many developments. Our agriculture industry is small, when viewed on a global scale. And, of course, the sheer size of the country means connectivity in rural areas is far from ideal.  

Thankfully, both the public and private sector are looking at ways to address connectivity. The Victorian State Government last year announced a $45 million investment to help improve broadband, mobile and wi-fi coverage in regional Victoria. A significant part of this investment will be focused on projects in key agricultural areas of the state, including the Murray-Goulburn, Wimmera and Gippsland regions. In the recently-announced Victorian budget, the Andrews government has committed another $11 million to build extra telecommunications infrastructure and improve mobile coverage in blackspot areas across regional Victoria

Similarly, in 2016 Optus announced a $1 billion plan to increase 4G coverage across regional Australia, while NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet announced a plan for regional growth in the state, which includes improved connectivity.

Another concern for growers is data security and privacy.

Data collection and security is, for most of us, still a fairly unexplored concept. With an ever-growing number of agtech companies collecting on-farm data, there are a few security issues growers need to consider.

Is my data protected? Will the company collecting the data on-sell it to third-parties? Does the data belong to the company, or the grower? Is the company transparent about their data collection and management practices?

It’s crucial that growers looking to implement IoT solutions do their due diligence and check end-user agreements, to ensure that they’re aware of how their data will be collected and managed. At the same time, businesses at the forefront of IoT technology need to take a proactive approach in addressing these concerns, and ensure that international standards are developed and followed.

Since its inception, The Yield has understood both the opportunities and risks associated with collecting such a tremendous amount of data, and has endeavoured to be completely transparent with customers regarding data security, ownership and usage. You can read more about our data policy here.


Grower-first design

Given the enormous potential of agtech, far too many growers have been let down in the past by vendors who promise the earth, but deliver tech that is unreliable and poorly supported. A grower can purchase the latest and greatest soil moisture monitoring device, for example, but if it’s not supported, maintained or able to interpret the data in a meaningful way, its value becomes questionable.

The best way to avoid that is simple - companies developing new tech for the agriculture industry need to listen to and work directly with growers, get a clear picture of the unique challenges they face, and use that information to build solutions that fit.

The future of IoT and agtech lies in building solutions that are focused on solving real problems for growers and complementing the way they work, not just equipping them with the latest tech. It’s about developing smart, integrated solutions that give growers the information they need to make all on-farm decisions – such as when and how to plant, irrigate, feed, protect and harvest.

In 2017, The Yield officially launched Sensing+ for Agriculture, a microclimate sensing system that combines sensors, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to provide growers with the information they need to make critical decisions.

Ros Harvey, founder and Managing Director of The Yield, explains the key difference between Sensing+ for Agriculture, and other agtech solutions growers have been offered. .

“We provide an end-to-end service where we install our own hardware, service it, support it and make sure the data is curated. 

“We then analyse it, transform it through predictions and then put it in growers' hands. Our unique differentiator is that in working with weather data, we do it at a very microclimate level such as the farm itself, the field and the right down to the row or hotspot.

“If we do our job well, we are almost like magicians. It’s like everything disappears and all people have to focus on is what the information is telling them.” 


What next?

IoT device installations in agriculture are estimated to reach 75 million in 2020, up from 30 million in 2015, with a compound annual growth rate of 20 per cent. This adoption rate is led, in part, by the clear ROI shown by early adopters of the technology. For instance, farms in the US that have been applying IoT technologies extensively reap a yield of 7,340 kg of cereal per hectare, compared to the global average of 3,851 kg of cereal per hectare.

With pressure to produce more with less, growers need access to instant, real-time information in the palm of their hands, rather than poring over spreadsheets and stats each night. They need useful, actionable information that’s backed up by good quality data, so they can feel confident that they’re making the right decisions for their crops.

The adoption of IoT technology means more intelligent, sustainable agriculture – allowing Australian growers to maximise efficiency and yield, while minimising risk.

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