Managing the Data Transmission Constraints When Using ICTforAg Sensors

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By 2018, according to a recent report from Ericsson, the largest category of connected devices in the world will be comprised of a variety of vehicles and machines, utility meters, sensor technologies and consumer electronics – all captured under the name “Internet of Things” (IoT). This has wide-ranging implications for how economic activity will be organized across multiple sectors including transport, power provision and agriculture.
The change is already underway in industrialized agriculture. Connected farm implements, satellite imagery, ground sensor technologies, historical data on yield or inputs, and data analysis are beginning to be used to help make on-farm practices more precise and profitable.
The Communications Constraint
The full expansion of IoT to the farm, however, is constrained by the costs of wireless communications for IoT devices. The technology exists, but industry has a longer history of investing in wireless technologies designed for individuals, rather than machine-to-machine communications.
For example, an individual consumer needs high rates of data transfer (for, say, internet surfing) and would recharge a single connected device. A network of connected machines or sensors, however, must send relatively tiny amounts of data on whatever they are affecting or measuring in the physical world, and these devices might need to go a long time without charging.
As industry invests more heavily in IoT communications, device costs can be expected to drop and their use will become more possible on the farm. This is even more true in the developing world, where smallholder farmers drive 80 percent of food production.
The Standards Constraint
The IoT communication constraint is exacerbated by competing technical standards for wireless IoT communications. For example, Zigbee is a set of standards to ensure interoperability of IoT for devices and machine-to-machine wireless communications. Scores of device makers, communications firms and others have joined the Zigbee Alliance, signaling their commitment to interoperability.
Google recently open sourced a competing protocol called Thread, which is designed for secure networking of interoperable wireless IoT devices in the home, and Thread has its own attendant industry alliance.
Other competing standards include Z-wave and Bluetooth Low-energy, each with its proponents and detractors. There are competing wireless technologies for communicating with multiple small devices over a wide area as well: SigFox has been deployed in multiple European countries, and the competing LoRa was used to deploy an IoT network across an entire country.
As long as wireless and device standards proliferate, there will be market uncertainty about which of them merit the industry investment that will take them to scale. This most likely means that large firms in industrialized economies need to ally around wireless communications standards and rules for interoperability of devices, resulting in more harmonized investment and industry coordination.
Compatible devices can be expected to proliferate, and the costs will come down, opening up new opportunities to apply them across agricultural value chains.
Circumventing Constraints Today
The emerging world will probably find itself on the trailing end of this trend. There are, however, several ways to begin to secure the benefits of connected machines, sensors and devices for agriculture development today, even if the full capabilities IoT may take some time to arrive.
Some sensor technologies are already using the mobile networks effectively (such as for fleet management or cold chains) with devices that have onboard SIM cards. This approach can be expanded through user-centered, localized design around on-farm problems. While the number of IoT devices is expected to overtake that of mobile phones, it is important to remember that global smartphone ownership is also rapidly accelerating.
Most smartphones are equipped with cameras, several common on-board sensors (such as temperature, geolocation and acceleration) and sufficient computing power to run software for analysis. Smartphones can be a key interface for powerful, localized farm analysis.
For the world to feed its projected 9.1 billion people by 2050, food production must increase by 70 percent. Data-driven agriculture promises to be a critical tool for achieving the sustainable farming intensification that will be required. It is not only possible to bring together existing technologies in novel, user-centered ways and begin to secure benefits of IoT for agriculture in the emerging world; it is a matter of urgency.
This post is Part 3 of a 4-part series on the potential of low-cost sensor technologies to improve agriculture in developing countries.

  1. How Can Sensor Technologies and Precision Farming Improve Agriculture?
  2. 3 Barriers to Using Sensors to Improve ICTforAg
  3. Managing the Data Transmission Constraints When Using ICTforAg Sensors
  4. How Can We Create an Integrated ICTforAg Sensor Ecosystem?

By Brian King, Digital Development Advisor, Digital Development for Feed the Future, a collaboration between USAID’s Global Development Lab and Bureau for Food Security, focused on integrating a suite of coordinated digital tools and technologies into Feed the Future activities to accelerate agriculture-led economic growth and improved nutrition.  More information on on low cost sensors and agriculture can be found in the Key Findings Report from the Low Cost Sensors for Agriculture workshop in June 2016.