How IoT Soil Monitoring Is Driving Precision Agriculture
An Interview with Dr. Munir Hoffmann & Andreas Heckmann from AGVOLUTION GmbH
Faced with tough challenges of exploding world population, dwindling arable lands and natural resources, alongside growing extreme climate events, the agriculture sector is under undue pressure. In a quest to improve yields while minimizing resource usage, global farmers are turning to the Internet of Things (IoT) and precision agriculture practices. This week, Dr. Munir Hoffman and Andreas Heckmann from AGVOLUTION give the inside scoop on how intelligent solutions like real-time IoT soil monitoring are driving farming efficiency to help combat industry-wide challenges.
1. Tell us about AGVOLUTION. What are your products and vision, who are your customers?
The objective of AGVOLUTION is the global development, manufacturing and sale of our two core products: first, an energy self-sufficient IoT wireless sensor network named CLIMAVI, which measures soil water and temperature at various depths together with temperature, precipitation and relative humidity aboveground (wind speed is optional); and second, FARMALYZER, a digitized and process-based farm management intelligence solution based on our CLIMAVI data as well as satellite, ground and machine data. FARMALYZER offers customer-specific decision support for long-term agricultural sustainability and higher profitability under increasing climate risk.
Through these products, AGVOLUTION turns Climate-Smart-Agriculture (CSA) vision into real-world farming practices. Our customers are growers of various types (arable, tree nurseries, plantations, horticulture), as well as agricultural advisories and other players in the farming supply chain like seed producers and fertilizer companies. We provide a transparent presentation of the economic cost of each crop management activity, accounting for resource consumption like CO2, to enable input savings of up to 40% on resources like nitrogen, biocides, growth regulator, fuel and water, based on site-specific economic and ecological optimization (per 10 m2).
2. What challenges are facing the agricultural sector today?
Providing sufficient food, plant-based products and fuel for the growing world population is a key challenge in the farming sector, particularly under climate change. For instance, although Germany is known for its stable climate, in 2018 up to 100% yield losses were observed for specific fields. This demonstrates that agriculture has already been severely affected by increasing climate extremes.
Simultaneously, with its “Farm to Fork” strategy, the European Union set the ambitious target to cut CO2 equivalents emissions to half by 2030 – compared to the 1990 level. Likewise, we will face a shrinking resource base in terms of phosphorous and fossil fuels. The Climate-Smart-Agriculture (CSA) approach that adapts farming practices to rising climate extremes while mitigating negative agricultural impacts on the climate, is proposed as the pivotal strategy.
3. How do you see the role of IoT and precision agriculture in combatting these challenges?
The worldwide AgTech market growing dynamically at 12.8% CAGR and expected to reach around $ 5.5 billion by 2021 (Roland Berger, 2019), might play a key role. Farm activities could produce around 100,000 data points per hectare by merging data sources and using new technologies such as IoT. However, this data needs to be translated into actionable knowledge for farmers to enable stable and respectively higher yields with fewer resources like fertilizer, water and energy per ha. Ultimately, this results in higher profitability and long-term sustainability amidst the growing pressure from climate change.
4. Why is continuous soil monitoring important? In what ways can farmers improve farming efficiency and crop yield with soil data?
The plant growth is largely constrained by water and nutrients, both of which are largely determined by soil processes. Understanding the supply of these resources is critical to managing soil-plant systems, thus optimizing plant growth and minimizing resource waste. Our sensors monitor soil moisture at different depths, which allows for the assessment of total soil water supply. Combing this information with data on soil temperature and other soil properties, we can then model nutrient supply.
In addition, our sensors measure aboveground micro-climate which together with satellite data, is then fed into our in-house AI hybrid model to quantify resource demand. The difference between supply and demand evaluated in economic terms provides the basis for in-season management recommendations.
It’s worth noting that under climate extremes, plants make use of subsoil resources which can only be assessed by soil sensors.
5. Why is there a need for wireless IoT sensors to gather microclimate and soil data?
The weather and especially the microclimate of each field site have a huge impact on the yield and crop production efficiency. Just think about abiotic risks like drought and nutrient availability or biotic risks like plant diseases. All these risks are linked to the microclimatic conditions in the soil and the plant canopy. These conditions are changing rapidly throughout the season and on each field site. Specifically, in horticultural and orchards you want to achieve the optimal quality for consumers and need to know the critical parameters as soon as possible.
If you want to establish those prediction systems and resource-saving decision support, you need an autonomous monitoring system that helps you to identify potential risks and their impact on the yield and quality at each field site. These risks can only be identified by soil sensors, as they are able to provide essential information on determining resource availability for plant growth such as water. Hence, IoT solutions like our CLIMAVI microclimate sensors are paramount for a climate-smart farming system.
6. What are the wireless connectivity requirements in this context?
Wireless sensor networks in rural agriculture need to be energy self-sufficient and require little maintenance. In addition, cellular connectivity is often absent on arable land. As such, Low Power Wide Areas Networks (LPWAN) and specifically MIOTY-based solutions are a perfect option for this use case. They can send data from the sensor node to a gateway placed on the farm over more than 5 km distance and operate for several years without battery exchange.
To reach the best performance, you need to plan your networks prior to hardware installation. We offer our customers full service for network planning including the best position for gateways and field-sensors taking into account agricultural parameters like the geospatial yield potential. LPWAN-based solutions and hardware need to be adapted to your specific use case, so you should always look at the service offerings of the IoT provider.
7. From your viewpoint, what makes MIOTY technology/ MYTHINGS the right solution?
MIOTY is the most advanced LPWAN technology on the market so far, and it is made for demanding industrial applications. MIOTY’s patented Telegram Splitting (TS-UNB) technology enables the lowest packet error rates, even in a crowded spectrum, and operates without being interfered by other networks. Through this approach, more than 1 million devices per network and up to 1.5 million messages per day could be processed. TS-UNB provides robust, scalable and mobile IoT connectivity needed in industrial and agricultural use cases. MIOTY also empowers customers to run their own networks and use the advantages of the Internet of Things in the real world – not only in a laboratory.
BehrTech offers with MYTHINGS a sophisticated management platform for MIOTY LPWA networks to enable device management, cloud/backend integration and network troubleshooting at scale. We see huge benefits of MIOTY and the MYTHINGS platform compared to other LPWAN-technologies.
8. How do you see the precision agriculture trend moving forward?
Much progress has been made in monitoring specific data with remote sensing (water stress, leaf area index) or machines (yields and energy usage per area). However, we could see farmers who were early adopters of these technologies have waived them in recent years, simply because they got drown in the flood of data that does not provide actionable knowledge. A lot of collected data, even yield maps, becomes only useful when integrated with other data sources, analyzed and transformed into comprehensible outputs for the farmer and all machines used within the farm. This way, precision agriculture improves not only resource efficiencies, but also farmers’ productivity.
We believe with the package of CLIMAVI and FARMALYZER, we provide the right tools to collect all necessary data for meaningful decision support while making it easy and time-efficient for farmers to implement precision agriculture practices. Given growing challenges due to climate change and weather extremes, there is little doubt that precision agriculture, specifically site-specific exploitation of soil, climate and management interactions, is the path forward for agriculture.