Monday, 15 Jun 2020

A TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION FOR AGRICULTURE

As smart tech becomes more prevalent in the consumer and industrial sectors, with IoT applications giving rise to sensors becoming more ubiquitous in connected devices and machines, it was only a matter of time before the opportunity for operational transformation would visit a more traditional sector such as agriculture. 
 
Whether a person is a French farmer in Normandy, a cattle rancher in Queensland, an oil palm plantation owner in Sarawak or a coffee grower in Peninsular Malaysia, the challenges of agriculture are almost always the same. 


Putting aside uncontrollable variables such as the weather, farmers and agriculturalists alike have to consider these factors to ensure their operations yield the best possible outcomes -- inventory, raw materials, soil health, irrigation, yield variations and temperature, among others. 
 
Technology adds value to agriculture. We explore how. 


The Challenges of Agriculture 

Improving agricultural productivity and farmer efficiency are some of the broader challenges prevalent in any economy that has some dependency on agricultural output, beyond needing agriculture to feed its own population.  
 
In a wider context, food security is a global concern, as populations flourish and grow, as populations increasingly migrate to urbanised areas and as economies evolve. 
 
When we consider that there may be 75% of the global population living in cities by the year 2050, agriculture becomes an important part of the economy as well as a part of a nation’s resources. 
 
Whether those agricultural resources take the form of fisheries, cattle ranches, vegetable farms or vineyards, agriculture is a key component of the economy that needs to adapt technologically to survive and thrive and meet demand. 


When we consider unpredictable circumstances, too, such as global pandemics causing temporary shutdowns of factories or businesses, countries still need farms and plantations to continue producing agricultural yield to sustain and nourish its populations. 
 
There is opportunity to integrate technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), data science, satellite communication and mobility, each or all able to help the farmer increase productivity and yield, while reducing costs and increasing levels of efficiencies for processes.  
 
In some cases, these benefits may even help a business to grow beyond its national market if the large-scale introduction of technology into the agricultural sector proves to be a profitable investment. 


The Convergence of Technology and Agriculture 

Smart farming solutions of the near future may well look like this. 
 
We may well see autonomous (self-driving) vehicles being deployed in the fields for multiple uses, such as pruning, clipping, collection and other agricultural processes. Fleets of these autonomous vehicles (such as tractors or trucks) could then communicate with each other using IoT, for better farm management. GPS enablement allows farmers whose farms occupy huge swathes of land to reduce the amount of time spent on the land by the manual labour force. Autonomous vehicles could possibly cover more ground in less time. 
 
It may also become a commonplace sight of a farmer using a smartphone, tablet or computer to remotely control processes and devices or equipment, a smart tech-enabled innovation that helps with decision-making, more so if done with real-time monitoring. 
 
Additionally, small, medium or large-scale farmers and plantation owners will be embracing automation in the form of drones or agribots for tasks such as spraying or seeding, real-world applications that have positive implications on operations and processes. Automation often results in more being achieved in less time, and there is often no such thing as downtime unless there is a malfunction. This is an advantage over labour force investments that often mean workers work a limited number of hours each day. 
 
Connected devices make it possible to gather large amounts of data which then help to optimise processes and even help to inform the decision-making process for the farmer. When devices and equipment are connected seamlessly, there is the opportunity to better understand variables such as humidity, rainfall or temperature variations. 
 
In some cases, farmers, with the help of connected machines and devices and the data generated by these connected devices, can subsequently make decisions such as using less fertiliser, pesticides and chemicals or none at all, for example.  
 
Soil probes can be inserted 120cm into the soil to help measure water content, evaporation, salinity, temperature and humidity. These measurables, when collected, can help the farmer calculate the optimum setting for better outcomes. In some instances, a farmer may even be able to reduce water consumption by as much as a third, which can translate into better revenue per hectare as costs and wastage are mitigated. 
 
From the fields to the processing factory floor, (for example, in poultry farms) connected machines could help the farmer more accurately map machine workloads, inputs, and outputs thanks to sensors on machines.  
 
This would translate to increased accuracy and better control, not to mention less downtime often associated with manual labour. 


Benefitting from Technological Adoption and Integration 

There are benefits to both the agricultural sector and to the wider public when agriculture adopts technology as its new normal operationally. 
 
The overarching and key benefit would be the Increase agricultural productivity exponentially. This is a longer-term benefit that is an accumulation of smaller, consistent best practices that occur with the successful integration of smart technology into farming practices and processes.


The adoption of automation technology such as drones or bots may reduce dependencies on manual labour.  
 
A reduced dependency on manual labour may also mean less inaccuracy and less wastage. Less wastage will translate into improved cost management. 
 
Furthermore, the adoption of technology by agricultural industry players can result in the generation of big data, a useful component for analytics and forecasting.  
 
For instance, the analysis of big data can help with yield forecasts, mapping the possibilities of disruptions (costly or otherwise) or even establish patterns (such as weather patterns) which can then be integrated into processes and operations to help maximise output and yield.  
 
In the agricultural sector as is the case in many sectors, materials need to be procured, and shipping and transport need to be coordinated. With consumer and customer demand evolving, producers need to be more agile in responding to changing market conditions. 
 
Agriculture stands to benefit from the integration of IoT-enabled systems, networks and devices as they allow the creation of connected enterprise systems, allowing better, more seamless management of aspects such as inventory, procurement and transport. Using technology to manage these areas would help farmers free up their resources to focus on areas such as product quality and customer management. 


In a wider context, the migration of tech-enabled talent force to a tech-transformed agricultural sector would help assuage the concerns over the continuity of the agricultural sector that is facing the possibility of retirement of an ageing workforce without interested successors. 
 
Should the prospect of tech-enabled agriculture appeal to a younger workforce, we may well see the creation of a new breed of agripreneurs that would surely have positive economic impact. 
The digitalisation of agriculture can make farming more attractive to the younger IT-savvy generation of workers. According to reports, the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Asia-Pacific agriculture IoT market was valued at USD120 million in 2018 and is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 27% to reach USD650 million by 2025. 
 
Additionally, having the ability to monitor, calculate, adjust and predict using tech tools may eventually result in the agriculture sector creating disease resistant strains of crops and products (wheat, milk, beef, etc). 
 
When farms are running smoothly and producing profitable yield, this encourages selfsustaining agricultural employment and economic contribution. 
 
An unintended but no less meaningful benefit may well include environmental preservation through the reduction in use of harmful pesticides, fertilisers or chemicals which traditionally run into waterways such as rivers and lakes. 

Mobility and new ways of working are being redefined by IoT and the increasing presence of 5G networks. Agriculture is no exception to the transformation of industry and business with the increasingly-widespread adoption of technology on a large scale. 
 
Talk to Celcom for how your agricultural business can be transformed and tech-ready, and watch your investment in multi-platform tech tools translate into revenue and profit.