In 2017, The Economist published an article titled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. Hence, during the 2018 Innovation in Food and Agribusiness Forum, Dr Kok-Leong Ong, Associate Professor in Business Analytics at LBS and a researcher at our Centre for Data Analytics and Cognition (CDAC), discussed how digital technologies like internet of things (IoT) devices and the digital supply chain can create opportunities to utilise data to help drive the food and agribusiness industry.
Advances in digital technology bring new capabilities. Think about real-time data streams, large scale data storage and management, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to power new analytical solutions. On top of that, companies keep designing new and better processing systems for all that data. For example, Apple´s A12 Bionic iPhone Chip includes dedicated neural network hardware, has eight cores and can perform up to 5 trillion 8-bit operations per second. All that computing power in a small form factor means we can expect smart-farming to be more sophisticated than it is now in the coming years.
Smart farming and IoT for agriculture are shaping the future of agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines smart farming as “a farming management concept using modern technology to increase the quantity and quality of agricultural products” (FAO, 2017). Nowadays, farmers have access to radio-frequency identification (RFID), GPS, soil scanning, data management, and IoT technologies. They can precisely measure variations within a field and adapting their strategy accordingly and with that increasing the effectiveness of pesticides and fertilizers, but also using them more selectively. It also allows farmers to better monitor the needs of individual animals and adjust their nutrition, preventing disease and enhancing herd health.
The context around this need for smart farming is further driven by multiple factors. For example, global warming and changing environmental conditions are placing a lot of stress on farmers. While yield in the crops are impacted by drought or floods, the global population is growing and demand out of China and India means farmers need ways to increase yield in a less nurturing environment in order to meet these demands. Smart farming thus becomes an important proposition for farmers. Collectively with the different sensors, powerful computers and new advances in data analytics, farmers can look into better yield management and automation to replace slow and costly labour.
Research in this space within Australia is already growing, with researchers in Analytics working with mechanical engineers to develop weeding machines, or robotic fruit pickers. The weeding machine uses vision and AI to autonomously move around the field killing weeds without hurting the crops. Similarly, the robotic fruit picker will consistently pick fruits without damaging its surface thus ensuring that farmers get the most out of their harvest. However, smart farming and digital agriculture in Australia is still in an immature state (Trindall, Rainbow & Leonard, 2018). Adoption of digital and analytics technologies among food and agriculture businesses are either low or patchy.
An example of a company that is doing really well in this space is AgriNous. Based in Bendigo and founded in 2016, AgriNous is a transnational platform that facilitates real-time processing of livestock sales. Their application is a mix of technology, customer service and industry insights. AgriNous won the 2018 Inventor of the Year at the Bendigo Inventor Awards and took part in the La Trobe Accelerator Program (LTAP).
Smart farming challenges
While smart farming is promising many benefits to farmers, there are challenges as with other technologies. With the growing adoption of equipment and services that collect and analyse farm data, the agricultural industry could face increased cyber targeting. This could include theft, but data may also be vulnerable to ransomware and data destruction. Farmers need to be aware of and understand the associated cyber risks to their data and ensure that companies entrusted to manage their data, develop adequate cybersecurity and breach response plans (FBI Cyber Bulletin, 2016). In addition, according to an article by Trindall, Rainbow and Leonard (2018) Australian producers and agricultural stakeholders lack trust in data management systems and require improved digital knowledge. Other challenges are access to finance, telecommunications connectivity shortfalls, impartial advice, and interoperability and reliability. Therefore, the journey to a smart farm is still an on-going one, but research in this space will address these issues, as with any innovation that involves technologies.
This blog is part of the LBS Innovation Series, developed by Dr Mark Cloney, Professor of Practice in Economics at La Trobe Business School.
More blogs in the LBS Innovation Series:
- LBS Innovation Series: Gaps to perfection
- LBS Innovation Series: Building a global business in a period of disruption
- LBS Innovation Series: Is the Australian agriculture sector ready to grow?
- LBS Innovation Series: Agtech – Agriculture’s Disrupter or Saviour?
- LBS Innovation Series: Crossing the Chasm – Agtech & innovation ecosystems
- LBS Innovation Series: Innovation and the Agribusiness Taskforce
- LBS Innovation Series: Supply challenges and consumer expectations
- LBS Innovation Series: Robotics and AI are coming your way
- LBS Innovation Series: Consumer trends and future foods
- LBS Innovation Series: The future of agricultural production systems
- LBS Innovation Series: Cities that feed our planet
- LBS Innovation Series: Is big data the answer for the future of agribusiness?
- LBS Innovation Series: Lean business model design for food and agribusiness