The cleverest thing in your smart fridge may not be an automated re-ordering button, web-connected camera that tweets when your milk is off, or some other silly convenience system, but the food itself.
Agriculture has been quick to trial internet of things (IoT) technologies: already, sensor-controlled rooms are growing altered lettuce, cows are connected to improve milk, and the all-important bee is getting a boost from automated heaters.
For food production, the IoT makes sense. Not only does it have the potential to cut costs and boost food production – with a report by Beecham Research predicting that the use of IoT techniques for farming could boost food production by 70% by 2050 – but the use of sensors can also improve animal welfare and reduce the use of resources such as water.
Plus, unlike the other areas of our lives where the internet of things is creeping in, there’s no privacy concerns – unless you’re worried about cows being surveilled. Agriculture is one area of the IoT where there’s little downside, and a host of benefits.
The internet of things next trick? Improving lettuce …
As it turns out, lettuce isn’t good for everyone. It’s high in potassium, so can be unhealthy for people to eat when on dialysis or suffering chronic kidney disease. To make salads for those with kidney problems, Fujitsu and Microsoft teamed up to grow high-tech lettuce.
As odd as it sounds, the project highlights how sensors can be used to help agricultural plants grow faster and better, creating higher yields as well as unique specialisations – if they can do this with lettuce, imagine what they can do with wine grapes.
“The hardware sensors are similar to what you see in any semiconductor plant,” said Enrique Andaluz, Director of Strategic Business Development for Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing at Microsoft. Indeed, Fujitsu’s test bed is a chip plant that’s been converted to grow IoT-managed plants. “The information is picked from building sensors that control temperature, humidity, CO2, light intensity and other factors that affect the ‘perfect conditions’ to grow crops.” That data is handed to Microsoft’s Azure cloud, where it’s analysed for reports and to send alerts about its care.
All this data means it’s possible to fine tune the conditions to grow low-potassium lettuce. “To reduce the level of potassium at home, you typically cook the raw vegetables to change their internal chemical composition,” said Andaluz. And who wants cooked lettuce? “Fujitsu has been able to produce a raw lettuce with less than 80% of potassium content as compared to traditional grown lettuce.” Thanks to the IoT, crunchy salads for all.
Up there with smart fridges, connected cows are a staple of IoT stories, and with good reason – the idea of web-connected cows is hilarious.
The cows aren’t simply tweeting their position to online followers, however. Under a project run by Dr Jonathan Amory at Writtle College, sensors are tracking dairy cows to help farmers spot illnesses earlier, creating an early-warning system for disease that hopefully cuts suffering for the animals and improves milk yields. The researchers say lameness and diseases such as mastitis cost the dairy industry as much as £100m annually in the UK alone.
“Lots of diseases are tricky to spot and time consuming to monitor formally, so having a tool which could flag up cows with possible problems sooner and allow earlier treatment would be really valuable,” said Zoe Barker, the post-doctoral research assistant who runs the project, and is now an expert in sticking sensors to cows.
For this research, she said the cows were given a collar that included a positioning sensor, with an accelerometer and magnetometer – though, sadly, no adorable little cow bell.
The collars were fitted to a group of more than a hundred cows for six months, with the sensors returning a position on the beasts every 10 seconds, generating data sheets with a million rows of data for each day.
Why does it matter where cows are? Simply put, a cow that’s lying down away from the others is more likely to be sick. “We felt that position was important to understand not only the behaviour of the individual cows but also their social behaviour,” Barker said. “Without position, it’s not possible to know how the cows are interacting with each other and how this changes with health status or other management influences.”
The researchers had to adapt a system that had been used previously to track carts in mines and to follow firefighters – beasts on a farm is a very different environment indeed. “Once we sorted the optimum tightness of the neck collars, we reduced the number of whole collars lost by the cows in their shed,” she said. “A bigger issue was the cows ripping the plastic box we were using to house an external battery, and ripping the sensor off of the collar and losing that somewhere in the house.”
Cows weren’t the only problem. “In addition to our destructive cows, the large amount of metal in a modern cow shed caused a moderate reduction in accuracy due to the potential for deflection of radio waves on the metal,” she added.
The huge quantity of collected data now needs to be analysed – mathematicians are creating algorithms, and Barker is in the middle of writing up her paper on the project now – but the hope is it can be used to predict when cows get sick, she said. “If we can create the predictive model then we will be able to detect the changes in individual cow behaviour and social behaviour changes that are associated with the onset of disease, and therefore inform the farmer,” she said. “For diseases such as lameness, where the onset is slow and where clinical symptoms may be masked for a time, we can flag up the issue sooner. Sooner treatment usually means less severe symptoms, less pain, faster recovery and less risk of having a repeat treatment.”
These aren’t the only connected cows trodding fields. Alongside its smart lettuce, Fujitsu has given cattle step trackers. “By using pedometers in the cows and bulls farmers are able to predict the best time for mating and to determine whether cattle has healthy living conditions,” said Microsoft’s Andaluz. “For instance, now we know that when cows are in heat, they walk longer distances at a faster pace. By analysing the data on the cow pedometer, it is now easier to find that unique moment for both the cow and the bull to be put next to each other to increase impregnation chances. This translates [to a] 50% increase of meat production as well as to the eliminate risk of disseminating diseases due to prompt diagnosis of diseases in the farm.” Plus, you can find out how many cows pass the 10,000 step count goal.
The internet of bees
Agriculture is doomed without bees, and so are we. Without bees to pollinate, crops don’t continue and we can’t feed our connected cows.
But bees are in trouble. Their numbers have been in sharp decline, and no one is entirely sure why. One explanation for colony collapse disorder (CCD), as the disaster is known, is a type of mite – and researchers at the University of Minnesota and a firm called Eltopia have a solution that pops the plague like popcorn while keeping bees and hives safe.
Eltopia chief executive Will McHugh started his career on his family cherry farm, working with local bee keepers on tech even then to alter how the trees were pollinated. While working on that project, the keepers mentioned a mite that was attacking their bees. Those mites can be killed by heat, which doesn’t bother the bees but does melt the wax that makes up their hives.
So MacHugh and his fellow researchers developed a way to heat up specific spots in a hive from the inside, rather than heating the entire structure, using circuitry that’s screen-printed on to a hive base, called the foundation.
“We have printed circuitry on PLA (corn-based) plastic film that is coated with beeswax and impressed with a honeycomb pattern upon which the worker bees can draw out the comb,” said co-founder Aaron Seelye. “The ink is a special type that can both act as a temperature sensor one moment, and a heater the next. By taking cues from the environment, we can interrupt the reproductive cycle of the Varroa Mite, which is widely considered the leading cause of CCD.”
There are points when the mites can be interrupted by temperature changes. When worker bees see that viable larvae are in a spot in the honeycomb, they top it with a wax cap to protect the offspring. That means the temperature stabilises – and when that happens, Eltopia’s MiteNot tech kicks into gear.
“What our electronics do is two things: they monitor temperature and they produce heat,” he said. When the temperature stabilises, sensors spot it, and the electronics automatically start generating heat, killing the mites without harming the bees. “If you heat the mites up to 107 degrees or 108 degrees, all the mites die,” MacHugh said. “The bees actually kind of like it. The mites, because they’re so much smaller, it almost pops them like popcorn.”
Alongside killing off the troublesome mites, the system also collects other data. “In conjunction with this application, we’re working on things such as audio sensors, temperature and humidity, and durable scale, to tell honey gain [or] loss in a given timeframe),” added Seelye.
MacHugh pointed out that it’s “too early in the game” to say if Eltopia’s MiteNot is solving the CCD problem, as the technology has only been rolled out in the last month or so, and it’s not clear whether mites are entirely to blame for the mass deaths of bees. “Removing [or] reducing the mites as a parasitic influence on the colony can only serve to do good for the overall health of our bee colonies, which are a critical component of our food supply,” added Seelye.
But Eltopia’s technology could be a first step in changing how we keep pests off the plants we intend to eat. MacHugh pointed out that much of the discussion around food supply centres on pesticides.
“There’s a real battle in agriculture – over organic v inorganic, pesticides v GMO, etc,” he said. “I would just say that we’re really focused on not giving in to those arguments and coming up with a solution that’s sustainable.” He stressed he has nothing against pesticides – they were engineered for reason – but it’s understandable that some people don’t want their food covered in chemicals, either. “And it turns out we may not need them.”