For all the steady growth in the secondary (industrial) and tertiary (services) sectors over the last few decades, the importance of agriculture in India remains huge. On average, 1 out of every 2 members of the Indian workforce is employed in the primary sector – and the latter contributes >17% of the country’s GDP. Around 59% of the rural population (who make up a whopping 70% of the total population in India) rely on farming as their chief means of livelihood. Now, it is hardly possible to increase the volume of cultivable land at a pace to match the rapidly swelling population and the growing food demands – and hence, the onus is squarely on the farmers to maximize productivity and yield levels from the available land and other resources. This requirement, in turn, puts the spotlight on smart agriculture in India.
Implementation of technological solutions to boost agricultural performances is not exactly a new concept. Smart tractors have been in active use across the globe for a fairly long time – along with various other internet of things (IoT) tools and applications. Semtech’s open standard LoRa technology (in collaboration with National Narrowband Network Communications (NNN)) is being used to bolster the rural IoT and smart farming network in Australia. Earlier this month, it was also announced that Spanish IoT service provider IoTsens will be integrating LoRaWAN in its smart water platform. In India, LPWAN technologies like LoRa and Sigfox have begun to make a difference in the agricultural scenario. In what follows, we will take you through the major applications, use cases and impacts of LoRa technology on smart agriculture practices in India:
Suitability of LoRaWAN in precision farming
The lion’s share of farmlands and cattle ranches in India is in rural, relatively remote locations. Cellular connectivity, if at all available, is typically weak and unstable at such places. What’s more, the locations are often not covered by the licensed spectrum band either. In such a scenario, LoRa technology (which uses the unlicensed frequency band 865 MHz – 867 MHz in India) serves as the best possible alternative. The ease of installation, deployment and integration of LoRa network(s) in existing IoT frameworks is also a big factor. Generally, the sensors used in agritech need to transfer/update real-time data only at certain pre-specified intervals – and when included in the ALOHA-based LoRaWAN infrastructure – they help farmers gain timely, actionable information on a regular basis.
Note: There are more than 40 IoT startups in India that are working on smart agriculture solutions.
Role of LoRa in removing the uncertainty factors
While Indian farmers are increasingly adopting farm technology tools, agriculture, by nature, is still a high-risk activity. There are a multitude of factors which can have an adverse impact on annual crop yields (droughts, excessive rainfall/flooding, pest infestation, wrong harvesting methods, etc.). Implementation of LoRa technology can minimize such ‘agricultural risks’, or ‘field risks’, by doing away with the uncertainty factors and guesswork associated with the traditional ‘visual observation methods’. With the help of smart on-field sensing tools and advanced data analysis, farm-owners can get access to all the pertinent data – right from tracking soil moisture levels and determining proper irrigation techniques & fertilizer usage, to the vital health parameters of cattle on a ranch (this removes the risk of one sick animal contaminating the others as well). The excellent range and battery performance (>8 years) of LoRa systems ensure that they are economically viable for the farmers (who might not be particularly well-off) too.
Note: Quantified Ag has already started using LoRa-powered wearable devices for animals (e.g., cow ear tags) for constantly tracking health, welfare and productivity levels. The information received is routed through the receiver and the cloud system, to the smart device(s)/website(s) of the farmers.
Importance of sensors & semiconductors in smart agriculture
By the end of 2017, the worldwide shipments of agricultural IoT devices stood at 43 billion. Cut to 2020, and that figure will jump to ~76 billion – a 76.7% rise. Apart from automating regular agricultural practices (and making them significantly more efficient), different types of semiconductors and sensors – powered by LPWAN technologies – are being used for livestock tracking, smooth data collection & transfer, smart food processing, and other related fields. In a country like India, where agricultural losses (during and after harvest) are as high as $13 billion (well over ₹ 92000) – LoRa technology can be instrumental in bringing down the wastage levels, ensure better food availability, and (ideally) greater returns to the crop-growers. The need for smart agritech solutions is established and the benefits of LoRa gateways, transceivers, and on-field semiconductors and sensors are fairly evident. The onus is now on OEMs to come up with suitable, high-performance tools and systems to take IoT-based agriculture in India forward.
Note: In a LoRaWAN infrastructure, circuit protection can be an important issue. The ESD Protection Platform designed by Semtech handles this very well.
Security assurance, geolocation capabilities and a growing ecosystem makes LoRa a perfect fit
On average, an Indian farmer earns not much more than ₹ 77000 annually. Understandably, he does not have the funds to invest big on smart farming solutions and systems. LoRa comes across as an ideal solution – since using the technology involves minimal (or zero) spectrum costs, thanks to the fact that it uses unlicensed ISM bands. Even if the connection has to be taken from a third-party service provider, the fees are very low. The robust AES-128 encryption standard makes sure that there is no chance of data losses or breaches in the rural IoT systems. The open standard nature of LoRa is yet another advantage, and the built-in geolocation technology does not involve excess power consumption (GPS-free). The average daily power used up by the smart agri-sensors is less than 13 joules – ensuring optimal battery longevity. The ecosystem is growing fast too – with the LoRa Alliance, set up in March 2015, currently having more than 500 members. Support and expert guidance is always at hand.
Note: Both private and public LoRa networks are available for deployments, as per the precise requirements of farmers and the nature of the fields.
LoRa technology for agriculture is big…and growing bigger
For any new technology to be adopted on a large-scale, it needs to find worldwide acceptance first. Semtech’s LoRa comes up trumps in that regard. At the start of this year, well over 65000 LoRaWAN protocol-based macro cell gateways had been deployed, across as many as 65 different countries (in comparison, Sigfox networks were deployed in 45 nations by 2017-end). The number of sensors being used has also been projected to exponentially rise over the next couple of years or so. By 2019, more than 40% of all active LPWAN technologies will be working on LoRa standards. All of these stats underline the global popularity of the technology – and in the context of Indian farming, newer and more innovative use cases for LoRa deployment are being conceived on a regular basis. System integrators, node managers, IoT engineers, manufacturers and network operators are all coming together to help the farming community with technology solutions. LoRa is certainly the future, as far as precision agriculture in India is concerned.
Note: At the Annual City Of Camarillo Awards in 2016, Semtech bagged the ‘Business Of The Year’ award.
For managing water scarcity the smart way, there is LoRaWAN
Of all the water resources kept aside for farm irrigation, a stunning 60% gets wasted (as per a UN FAO report). In India, this water wastage percentage jumps to 70% (due to pollution, evapotranspiration, runoffs, etc.). To minimize such unduly high wastages, the importance of implementing IoT-based smart irrigation systems is paramount – and once again, LoRa seems to be the go-to technology over here. Farmers can set up soil moisture sensors and actuators on their fields – which would collect accurate, periodic information, and that would help irrigation activities: a) become more effective, and b) involve lesser consumption/wastage of water. The soil moisture data collected from the fields is transferred to the centralized LoRa gateways for further analysis, and on the basis of this analysis, the need for irrigating a field (or any section of it) can be established with certainty. In other words, using agricultural IoT tools allows farmers to arrive at a smarter irrigation decisions. Optimized use of water for irrigation is an absolute must – and LoRaWAN paves the way for that.
Note: It was officially announced in February that Waterbit, a leading smart irrigation agency, has started using LoRa RF technology in its Autonomous Irrigation Solution.
Key elements in smart farming infrastructure
While the installation, connection and maintenance costs of LoRa networks are pretty much low – Indian farmers need to have a clear idea of the main components of the system. For starters, there are the ‘water flow sensors’ that help in estimating the correct amount of water needed for field irrigation at any point in time. For measuring the soil moisture/ground moisture levels accurately, there are ‘soil moisture sensors’ (which can be digital or analog). Humidity sensors and temperature sensors round off the other important sensing tools that are present in a farm managed by LoRa technology. The ‘gateway’ ensures steady internet access and connectivity for the system microcontroller (generally, single-board microcontrollers are used). In an automated irrigation system, the importance of the ‘water valves’ – which release/stop water flow for irrigation based on preset triggers – also deserves a separate mention. In India and several other developing countries, the main power system often makes use of solar energy for the entire operations.
Note: All sensors have to be carefully calibrated, to make sure that the correct soil moisture levels are obtained. Raspberry Pi microcomputers can be used in scenarios where more power is required.
Quick comparison of LoRaWAN with other similar technologies
Given the limited range available when operated in the 433 MHz band, LoRaWAN tools for smart agriculture in India generally use the 865-867 MHz range. In contrast, Zigbee uses 2.4 MHz (IEEE 802.15.4) and RFM69 uses 433 MHz. The maximum data rate of a LoRa network is 22 kbps, which is considerably lower than that of RFM69 (300 kbps) and Zigbee (250 kbps). Given that conditions in agricultural lands are hardly likely to change at short notices, the low data throughput rates of LoRa suit perfectly. The line-of-sight (or, LOS) coverage distance of LoRaWAN varies in the 2.00 – 5.00 miles range (tools with higher LOS ranges in rural areas are also being launched) – which is higher than that of RFM69, but well below the level of Zigbee. As a rule of thumb, LoRa technology can be used for precision farming everywhere, provided that the irrigation system’s data transmission rate is less than 22 kbps. Cellular networks (GPRS/3G) have to be used in cases where the distance is more than 4500-5000 meters.
Note: All LoRa-based smart agriculture devices have to be carefully tested prior to release. A buggy farm automation system can give misleading information, leading up to serious damages.
The Teks agritech system, powered by LoRa
A couple of months back, we launched the first prototype of our breakthrough LoRa-based smart agriculture device. A single SIM needs to be used in the gateway (if multiple SIMs are needed per user, that might lead to serious management issues). The on-field sensors transfer high-accuracy, real-time data to the system nodes – and the latter then moves the central gateway (bidirectional data transfer). The gateway then sends the data to the server for processing and analysis, and the user (farmer) receives regular updates on his devices. We have gone with a single-channel gateway – with an eye on the cost and affordability factors, without compromising on the key capabilities of the system. The time-intervals for data readings can be selected by farmers (through the dedicated mobile app). The gateway can operate on LAN or wifi connectivity – and ensure superior management of water resources for irrigation (soil moisture is tracked, and irrigation notifications are sent to users). It also has additional capabilities for analyzing soil, temperature and atmospheric data – based on which accurate predictions are sent to the server, and the farmers are notified. As things stand now, the main purpose of our IoT agritech system is to minimize water wastage, ensure proper fertilizer application, and preserve soil quality.
Note: Every node of the Teks LoRa-based agritech tool is both low-power and low-cost. It can be charged through standard USB charging ports or with power banks.
10. Smarter use of fertilizers with LoRa
On Indian soils, there is an inherent lack of adequate nitrogen content. To tackle that, nitrogen fertilizers in general, and urea in particular, are often used rather indiscriminately on fields. This practice can, and often does, prove counterproductive. A recent report revealed that these nitrogen fertilizers make up around 75% of the total greenhouse gas emissions from crop fields (for instance, nitrous oxide). Manual soil testing is often not adequate (particularly in larger farms) – and the LoRa sensors (which use low power and cover high ranges) offer real-time visibility and tracking options for soil conditions, so that fertilizers can be applied at the right times, and in the right quantities. Overfertilization and underfertilization are both rather alarmingly common in Indian agriculture – and switching over to smart farming practices can finally bring in a balance. In March 2018, wireless soil sensor manufacturer company Teralytic announced the integration of LoRa technology in its NPK (nitrogen, phosphate, potassium) sensor. The device has as many as 26 built-in sensors, and it runs on battery.
Note: Teralytic’s NPK soil sensor was launched at the 2018 World Agritech Innovation Summit.
11. Role of AI and agricultural drones
In a benchmark move in 2016, the government of Andhra Pradesh entered into a collaboration with Microsoft and ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics) – for technology-based analysis of soil parameters, weather conditions, and other key stats. The entire system is operated on the basis of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and of course, secure cloud computing – and it sends text messages to the farmers (mentioning important information, like correct sowing times). It has been proven that crop-growers can increase annual yields by up to 30% with this AI-powered agritech system (the Microsoft Azure platform is used to examine 4 decades of data). Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also extremely important in the overall smart agriculture setup, for an array of purposes – from crop spraying and field/soil monitoring (soil mapping), to planting and regular crop examinations. Research projects for using drones for smart farming in India are already underway.
Note: As the use of smart farmtech tools becomes more and more common, the importance of big data in agriculture will also rise. Already, the number of data points in a ‘connected farm’ is several times more than that in a farm half a decade back.
12. Training the farmers is a challenge that has to be overcome
Precision agriculture needs data…and lots of it (we might just call it ‘data-driven agriculture’). While LPWAN-powered systems facilitate easy and prompt access of such data – and eases a lot of pain points by automating crop monitoring tasks and generating alerts – the farmers have to be thoroughly trained on how the tools and sensors and gateways are to be used for the best possible results. Any IoT agritech tool performs four major functions (visualization, data analysis, control and process monitoring) – and the end-users have to be made familiar with all of these capabilities. The fact that the young generation is not very keen on farming (i.e., in following the footsteps of their forefathers) is also a challenge. Typically, the younger lot is more conversant with technical stuff – and unless they start taking a more active role in smart farm management, things can be difficult. It’s one thing for the technology to be available – and quite another to have the on-field personnel to optimally utilize it.
Factoring in the rapid growth in global population, the UN FAO has forecasted that food production has to go up by a whopping 70% by 2050 (in comparison to 2016). What’s more – the average land size of an Indian farmer is a measly 1.15 hectares - which often does not allow for much in the way of scale economies.
To sum up, the Indian agricultural setup has more than its fair share of fragmentations and bottlenecks. However, progress is being made in the realm of smart agriculture in India – and the LoRa technology is right in the face of this revolution. The collaboration of SenRa with Skysens last December was chalked up to make low-cost, long-range IoT solutions easily available in India. The scenario is challenging yet promising – and LoRaWAN definitely has the potential of disrupting the Indian primary sector in a big way.