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Can the “Internet of Things” Make Agriculture more Sustainable?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, likely calls to mind recent innovations like doorbell cameras, smart thermostats and fitness trackers. According to McKinsey, “[t]he Internet of Things (IoT) describes physical objects embedded with sensors and actuators that communicate with computing systems via wired or wireless networks—allowing the physical world to be digitally monitored or even controlled.” Whether you read this definition as convenient or ominous, chances are you approach it in personal terms.

But as with other technical innovations of recent decades (GPS, robotics, AI), the consumer applications that receive the most attention may not be the most impactful, or even the most interesting, possibilities for the IoT. In fact, a second term, coined at least a decade after the IoT, describes a growing, parallel market that arguably offers more exciting implications for our future: the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). With industry-specific applications in agriculture, energy, and manufacturing, the IIoT is already transforming the goods and services that are core to our existence—and creating possibilities for efficiency and sustainability that were previously unthinkable.

Lindsay Corporation, a nearly 70-year-old company specializing in agricultural irrigation, provides one example. The company’s center pivot irrigation systems—think long, wheeled booms slowly rotating around fields as they deliver water to thirsty crops—were already an enormous efficiency improvement compared to flood irrigation, which can waste massive amounts of water and create polluting runoff. But in recent years Lindsay has taken the water efficiency of its systems further, by pairing variable rate irrigation with remote controls, soil sensors, weather data and more. The ability to specify how much water to deliver where and when, based on different soil types, root depth, hyperlocal rainfall amounts, and more, results in significant water savings: from 2019-2022, the company reports that it helped customers save 469 billion gallons of water (along with conserving 1.5 billion kWh of energy, similar to the annual emissions of almost 240,000 vehicles).

A host of innovations enable the emerging agricultural IIoT. Vaisala, a Finnish company that got its start in the 1930s manufacturing remote weather balloons, now also serves agriculture end markets with remote, cloud-based air quality and humidity monitoring for greenhouses and indoor livestock facilities, along with precipitation and reservoir monitors that can inform the kinds of irrigation systems made by Lindsay. Other key inputs for farmers are being provided by relatively low-cost drones. Flight videos can now provide high enough resolution to identify weeds and even pests, along with a season-long view of overall crop health that helps farmers decide where and how to allocate resources, including water.

And the agricultural uses of the IIoT are not limited to plants. Cattle ranchers have begun to deploy virtual fencing as an alternative to barbed wire. Strung over thousands of acres, barbed wire is expensive to install and maintain, highly vulnerable to fire damage, and terrible for migrating wildlife. Virtual fencing, on the other hand, implemented via sensor collars worn by cattle, requires no physical fencing at all. Using satellite mapping, farmers can “draw” and activate a fence any where on the range; cattle that try to cross the fence line receive a small electric shock, similar to the “invisible fences” used by many dog owners. The sensors also double as tracking devices used to monitor herd health, feeding habits and more. Ranchers testing the systems intuitively understand the efficiencies created by remote monitoring, while conservation groups see an opportunity for the technology to “protect a movement corridor for elk, deer, hears, wolves, ground-nesting birds and other resident species.” In aquaculture, an aeration monitor and precise moving feeder with auto-cruise functionality, developed for shrimp farms, were just selected among six finalists for the Global Seafood Alliance’s Responsible Seafood Innovation Award.

In Lindsay’s case, driving water and energy efficiency through IIoT solutions in agricultural irrigation is helping the company grow in other ways, too. Its smaller road safety and infrastructure segment now offers products for remote monitoring of roadside assets like guardrails, crash cushions and “zipper” barriers, which in turn promise greater fuel efficiency for departments of transportation. Other standalone remote monitoring solutions the company has developed cover energy, industrial data, lighting and rail. All of them are designed to improve sustainability through greater efficiency—saving fuel, water, or other natural resources—because efficiency saves money. In all these areas, as in the production of the food on our tables, aligning sustainably and profit can provide benefits of many kinds.