Fitbit for cows, drones to monitor plants – how tech is changing the world’s food systems

Technology is helping farmers develop new and efficient ways to produce food

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 11:02am

The connected cow, wine by drone and rice-cams. All are becoming a reality as the drive for more efficiency and higher yields in farming is helping create an edible Internet of Things.

Technology usually associated with business and tech geeks – the cloud, big data analytics, machine-to-machine communication and even drones – is being used to make food production more efficient.

It all starts with smart planting; farmers no longer buy just any tractor. Guided by GPS satellite guidance systems, 30-tonne automated planters from agricultural machinery company John Deere can plant 24 rows of seeds to a depth of exactly 1.5 inches, and plant them three inches apart. All of this happens at 16km/h, with real-time data transmitted into the cloud. It’s designed to waste fewer seeds, improve yields, and take advantage of the best possible growing conditions. It can also all be controlled via the SeedStar app on an iPad by an operator whether they’re on the farm or not.

The food cloud is being pioneered in Asia by Fujitsu in one of its old semiconductor plants. To bring precision to agriculture on an unprecedented scale, Fujitsu has created its Akisai concept in Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Built on Microsoft’s vast global Azure platform for cloud computing, Akisai gathers data from around a vast greenhouse.

“Various data is collected from sensors that provide information on things like soil temperature, humidity, light levels and rainfall,” says Rishad Marquardt, spokesperson at Fujitsu Japan in Tokyo. “This data enables farmers to access accurate information on growing conditions enabling them to implement changes to increase yields.” Since everything is controlled, the crops are grown in consistent conditions, and the yields are entirely predictable.

The Akisai cloud was created primarily to cultivate low-potassium leaf lettuce . “It can last for several weeks and still remain perfectly fresh, tastes great, and can also be eaten raw by dialysis patients and people with chronic kidney disease,” says Marquardt. So what part does the cloud play? A vast network of sensors around the farm together determine the best conditions for production, precisely control the atmosphere, and even regulate the active ingredients included in liquid fertilisers. Akisai is also being used to grow rice suitable for sake brewing, specifically for the famous Dassai brand. Since the rice needed for sake is difficult to cultivate (yields are unpredictable, and falling), sensors are placed in fields to constantly monitor atmospheric temperature, humidity, soil temperature and soil moisture, a daily photograph of the crops is taken, and data on the final harvest is collected. The results might seem more likely to please a data scientists rather than a farmer, but such precision means yields go up. There are test trials in Vietnam and Turkey, too.

Another alcoholic cloud is on the rise in drought-hit California, where winemakers at Hahn Wines are using drones to save water. Again, it’s about gathering data; these remote sensing drones – also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – monitor air quality and take highly detailed images of the changes in vine density, which when combined with sensors on the ground that measure temperature, humidity and soil moisture, takes the guesswork out of watering the crops.

“The drone is a flying computer and has the artificial intelligence to make the best possible decisions in-flight to collect consistent and accurate data every time,” says Patrick Lohman, VP of Partnerships at PrecisionHawk, which is working with Hahn Wines using its PrecisionHawk Lancaster UAV. “It’s much more effectively than if a human was flying the aircraft manually,” he adds. It’s an almost completely automated system, sending all data back to the DataMapper cloud for automatic analysis and insight.

With climate change making weather more unpredictable, and resources like water more valuable, technology like this could be the answer. The theory is that farmers can use this technology to both save money and produce more food to meet the ever-rising demand. “Increased yields at the farm level through other Internet of Things applications – such as soil moisture monitoring, weather pattern analytics, and the use of drones – should also increase supply of food,” says Isabel Chapman, Principal Analyst at Machina Research.

However, once that food is produced, more technology can be used to stop waste, and it’s here that continuous connectivity is proving difficult for the food industry to resist. Global food trade is a reality – you are just as likely to eat Ecuadorian prawns in London as you are North American beef in Hong Kong – but a lot of food gets spoiled in-transit. Spoiling is a major reason why imported food is expensive. So one of the most obvious ways of using new technology is by attaching tiny communication sensors to containers for remote tracking on apps and software. That way, a consignment of food can be tracked in real-time as it travels from source to plate. It’s especially useful to do that in the so-called “cold chain”, where refrigerated food can now be “seen” at every stage of its journey. For example, if a container of prawns arrives in Hong Kong two days late, and spoiled, there’s a digital audit trail; it will be obvious which farm, warehouse, airport or container ship caused the delay, or even where the refrigeration broke down, or where the door was opened.

“Apps provide real time audit trails, notifications, and monitoring of shipments from producer to retailer,” says Chapman. “Each partner in the chain can have access to all information as the shipment is in transit.”

It’s like a black box recorder on a plane, and it allows food producers to make promises they can keep.

Although this kind of communication – normally using a sim card as well as other sensors – can be a relatively simple technique, it isn’t just technology for the sake of it. It’s also helping with new food traceability regulations.

“Governments are starting to become more proactive in food supply monitoring, inspection and enforcement,” says Chapman. The catalyst is a new Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) in the US, which sees the biggest changes in food safety in the last 70 years. So what? Since the food industry is truly global, China is watching very closely; the US was China’s second largest export market for agriculture in 2010. “It regulates the entire food chain, all the way back to producer and this legislation has international impacts,” she says of FSMA, adding that the US has been working for a number of years with the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) in China make sure both countries can verify the standards of the other’s imported food.

So what about that connected cow? It’s not wearing Apple Watch, but something close. A service within Fujitsu’s Akisai called Gyuho, where high-tech fitness devices similar to the Fitbit, Jawbone or the Garmin Vivofit come in.

“Cows walk more when in estrus and by attaching pedometers to them, ranchers can better assess breeding receptivity,” says Marquardt of the service that’s designed to drastically increase efficiency in animal husbandry. Gyuho projects have already begun in South Korea, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

Whether it’s activity trackers, drones, networked farms or SIM cards in the cold chain, we’re fast making a meal out of new technology.