IoT and agri-tech offer exciting developments in new field

5 Oct 2015

From an Irish perspective, one of the most potentially beneficial areas in which internet of things (IoT) technologies can have a major influence is agriculture. One of the institutions developing that hardware is the Tyndall Institute in Cork.

IoT Makers Week

With all the talk of smart cities being the apex of where IoT technology and sensors can take us, we sometimes forget that outside of the cities is where some of the most exciting applications of the technology can occur – in agri-tech.

When you think of it, agriculture is crying out for technologies that could increase efficiency and reduce workload. These technologies will soon be a necessity. The world’s population increases exponentially every decade, meaning more mouths to feed.

A United Nations report analysing population growth across the world has determined that the global population will be close to 10bn people by 2075, which certainly means that the food we grow and eat will need to be grown a lot faster, on a grander scale and with considerable less wastage.

With this in mind, centres like the Tyndall National Institute – based at University College Cork (UCC) – are busy developing hardware they hope to migrate from the labs and into the fields, and even animals, on Ireland’s and the world’s farms.

Getting the lie of the land

Looking specifically at Ireland for a moment, the development of the agriculture sector is considered vital to our economy – certainly as vital as pharmaceuticals or foreign-direct investment – as it accounts for nearly 10pc of the population’s workforce and contributes €7bn per year in revenues.

The only problem is that the land we live in is actually quite different to other larger nations, as our soil is anything but homogenous.

This makes it difficult for farmers who are trying to decide how to distribute fertilisers across a vast plot of land. Putting it in one area, depending on how much nitrogen and phosphate nutrients are in the soil, can have a greater yield than in another.

To help with this, the Tyndall Institute are developing nanosensors that can be placed in the soil and wirelessly transmit real-time data back to the farmer to let them know where to distribute fertiliser for greatest efficiency.

Nanosensor Tyndall

Nanosensor device based on a silicon chip. Image via Tyndall Institute

Beefing up a cow’s health

The nanosensors made their public debut at the recent National Ploughing Championships and, according to Tyndall’s deputy head of micro and nano systems, circuits and systems, Dr Alan Mathewson, they got a great response from farmers and from Teagasc.

“The response at the National Ploughing Championships showed a lot of excitement [from attendees],” he said. “It was the first time they’ve seen this, as, normally, they have to get soil analysis with samples done at a lab to get their farm profile.”

It’s not just in the soil, though, where technology is rapidly gaining ground in IoT technologies, but also in relation to the animals themselves – in particular, the diagnosis of Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD).

Once it has entered a farm, BVD can have a devastating effect on a farm’s livestock, which means its rapid identification is critical for herd protection and for the prevention of costly herd outbreaks that had, prior to 2012, cost the Irish economy €102m per year .

By placing a sample of the suspected carrier’s blood on the BVD diagnostic device – which contains four independent gold nanosensor channels per chip – a farmer can get a result in less than five minutes, rather than having to wait weeks for lab results.

Got milk?

Going hand-in-hand with the state of our bovine stocks, and equally important to securing Ireland’s agriculture industry, is our milk supply, especially given that 15pc of the world’s entire supply of powdered milk is produced here in Ireland.

With the help of €625,000 in funding from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine’s FIRM programme, members of Tyndall’s IoT development team have been working on a portable biosensor to detect spore-forming harmful bacteria that may enter the dairy supply chain.

Partnering with Teagasc, Tyndall says it is developing a biosensor that will allow on-site, in-line and real-time testing of milk to ensure that harmful spore-forming bacteria, which can survive pasteurisation, do not reach harmful levels.

Sprouting plant. Image via Kyle Spradley/University of Missouri

Sprouting plant. Image via Kyle Spradley/University of Missouri

Farmers are some of the biggest geeks around

What all of this technology is showing, it seems, is that the old stereotypes that farmers are traditionalists and not keen on adopting new technologies on the farm couldn’t be more wrong.

“Farmers are really well clued into technology aspects of what makes the business tick. And there’s a lot of people now with science degrees doing farming and understanding the benefits technology can bring them,” Dr Mathewson says.

With backing from those actually producing the food for us and the world, Dr Mathewson says that the technology they’re developing in IoT leads to incredible opportunities.

“I’m very excited about the possibility for IoT to be applied to agriculture specifically, as it’s an area that benefits Ireland in many ways,” he says.

“It gives us the possibility to create an industry that can be used across the world. If we can deal with making the measurements and handling the data analysis that comes from it, we can do a lot of things on ICT for agriculture that could be exported.”

IoT Makers Week explores the internet of things revolution and the makers driving it with reports on from 5 to 9 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #IoTMakersWeek on Twitter.

Farmers using tablet image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic