How The Internet Of Things Is Digitizing Agriculture & Speeding Up Rural Development In India
Author: Uday Dodla
We are amidst exciting times as we experience machines thinking, talking and adding value to how individuals engage with the world in their daily lives.
With over 20 billion internet-connected devices expected to run by 2020, the deluge of data streams from these devices would warrant the use of edge computing, sophisticated analytics and AI. Innovative interplay of such technologies to produce desirable use cases is egging on the growth of Internet of Things (IoT) today.
Globally, countries are fast-adopting IoT in spaces such as retail, consumer wearables, commerce and smart infrastructure. Currently a relatively small market for IoT, India aims to clinch at least 20 percent market share in the next 5 years. The Indian government’s efforts in modeling a Digital India highlight the indispensable role of IoT and cloud technologies to usher in a digital revolution for growth in India. In the 2016-17 Union Budget, the government promised an outlay of Rs. 7296 crores as part of its AMRUT and Mission to build 100 Smart Cities, the success of which is contingent on adaptive use of sensors, smart devices, connectivity, cloud and Big Data technologies.
In fact, the IoT revolution in India is already catching on with increasing government and venture capital investments pouring into supporting startups working on real-use cases addressing unique challenges like traffic management, surveillance and safety, smart homes in urban settings and so on.
While urban infrastructure development forms an obvious area for IoT implementation, it is interesting to evaluate the impact of IoT and rural technologies on penetration of welfare services in rural areas that house 70 percent of the country’s population, as per the Census of India’ 2011 Provisional Population Totals of Rural-Urban Distribution. For example, the government’s Tele-medicine etwork for e-healthcare services delivery is transforming accessibility in remote parts of the country. The system allows for doctor-patient interaction in telemedicine centres, with patient’s health records being automatically wired to doctors for reference.
There is also a growing opportunity in the agriculture sector that stands to improve lives, make India a true leader in Agricultural IoT and revolutionize the way farmers plant, fertilize and harvest in the next decade. And the time is right, thanks to advances from chipmakers, that are making the compute and connectivity hardware and software technologies more affordable.
The agricultural sector that employs 50 percent of the country’s population claims a huge impact on the overall growth of the country. This sector can reap the benefits of the huge potential of IoT driven solutions to improve supply chains and farming practices, which together can have the impact of improved yield and higher monetization for the sector. Large farmers are now deploying ‘Precision Farming’ techniques that use field sensors to monitor farming operations.
Farmers in Brazil, for example, are expected to use unmanned tools such as drones, to collect, analyze and transmit real-time crop intelligence to keep a check on the usage of chemicals, and irrigate dry fields to generate sustainable and high-yielding results. This information can then be transmitted to farmers over mobile handsets. Analysis of vast data generated, enables farmers to make informed real time data-based decisions about utilisation of their resources and overall performance of their yield.
A fascinating use case involving Voluntary Milking Systems (VMS) has gained prominence in some parts of Europe. The system enables cows to voluntarily approach robots for milking up to four times a day, according to their biological needs, points out a Grant Thornton report on use of technology in the dairy industry. Agri-Robotics are also picking up well in developing countries where they are utilized for activities ranging from surveillance to basic farming activities like tilling, ploughing etc. With the concept of ‘Cnnected Farms’ on the cards, companies must be ready to face the dynamics and cater to the requirements of their customers in the sector.
Although private and public investments in Smart Agriculture have been aggressive in recent years, the sector in India has been conservative in its full-scale adoption. According to a study undertaken by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) for the year 2012-13, costs amount to nearly 30 per cent of the total output that an average farm household obtains from a crop. Given the high costs, how viable is it for small and medium Indian farmers to deploy IoT devices so as not to reduce their profitability margins?
IoT device and solution providers, thus need to come up with low-cost sustainable solutions to reduce costs of ownership for farmers like bringing in the widespread availability of low cost sensors and ubiquitous connectivity that will come with Cellular NB-IoT. Similarly, IoT devices optimizing power consumption built on power-efficient sensors and processors will be necessary to ensure that deployments do not become a high maintenance problem.
According to industry body NASSCOM, there are about 280 IoT start-ups in India, out of which about 40 focus on smart agriculture. With technology giants throwing their weight behind bright innovations of IoT startups, indigenous players are ramping up their capabilities in the area. Innovations being covered range from smart irrigation, agri-drones, robotic harvesting, produce monitoring and agri-sensors.
Smart irrigation systems are specifically suited for arid and semi-arid regions, smart irrigation technology can ensure efficient use of water resources based on the humidity of the soil, the needs of the crop and weather patterns, which when integrated with the right type of sensors and connectivity will result in optimal usage of a scare resource.
Innovative business concepts around providing farming as a service using heavy payload drones is another solution that is becoming a reality. Using very efficient flight platforms, drones can be made to dispense fertilizer and pesticides over acres of farmland in a very efficient manner, guided by precise positioning and long range wireless connectivity. This not only ensures a steady and uniform distribution over the crop area, it also replaces a previously human dependent task and removes the health risk associated with handling hazardous chemicals.
Utilizing machine learning in agricultural robots to harvest specific crop such as cotton, vegetables and fruit without the need for expensive seasonal labour to do the work, looks promising. Smart cameras, that can identify plant issues, ripe fruit or identify farm intruders (animal or human theft) also offers a unique use case that can help agriculturalists protect their crops.
Perhaps one of the most common areas is the usage of a smart sensor technology to monitor produce quality, wind and light conditions soil temperature, acidity and mineral content. Startups in this space are using a combination of such sensors to provide real time feedback to farmers such that appropriate action may be taken.
All of these ideas serve as a collateral benefit for governments at the Centre and State levels by helping them boost the ecosystem for startups in the states and encourage innovation in a sector that is vital for the country. The Indian government has been bullish in streamlining the scope of IoT for the agriculture sector in its draft IoT policy and providing incentives to capture investor interest. However, much more needs to be done with regard to addressing the issues of interoperability, cost reduction, and raising awareness of the benefits of using IoT in the agricultural sector. The need of the hour, is to focus on offering these solutions at a wider scale.
India is poised to become a powerhouse of end to end solutions, thereby paving way for IoT to power sectors that have an impact on the country’s overall growth. While technological innovations in farming are not very recent, the IoT wave promises a bright future for agriculture and rural development in India.
About the author: Uday Dodla is the Director of Product Marketing at Qualcomm India