For 20 years I ran product teams for companies like Intel, Netscape, eBay, and several startups. I now apply that operational experience to transforming our food system through the Sustainable Food Systems program which I started in 2015 at Orange Silicon Valley. The program’s mission is to identify opportunities where hardware and software can transform and solve problems in food and its supply chain.
When I started the program, I embarked on a six month ethnographic immersion of food producers. I visited over 20 farms in 6 distinct growing regions to experience first hand the sites, sounds, smells, and practical realities of a modern farm.
At the same time, I spent met with entrepreneurs in the tech industry who were creating “AgTech” companies. You see, starting in 2013, venture capital investment in agtech vastly increased. From 2013 to 2016, more than $10 Billion was invested in food and ag startups.
One of the areas that showed the most promise for where tech entrepreneurs could solve real problem in agriculture was IoT.
With the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007, the “internet” transformed into the “mobile internet.” Suddenly, people accessed information from everywhere using a handheld device. Because more than a billion smart phones have been produced to date, there has been a 10x drop in the price of the components. Take, for example, accelerometers. An accelerometer is a microchip that measures change in velocity. As recently as 2000, accelerometers were used in uncommon devices such as $1 Million defense missiles. Because accelerometeres are now common components of smart phones, they can now be found in $50 dog collars.
At the same time that components prices were falling, their computational power dramatically increased. When I was an undergraduate in 1993, the Cray Supercomputer was the world’s most powerful computer. It contains the computing power of an iPhone 4. With my current iPhone, I have more computing power in my pocket than when I was a computer science student at Carnegie Mellon University.
As a result were are experiencing another transformation of the Internet: the internet-of-things. Now devices can access information everywhere.
When we can internet connect otherwise ordinary devices such as farm equipment, animal ear tags, and water valves not only does it mean that digital data collection is possible, it brings some significant advantages:
Digital data on the farm is now possible.
With as much promise as digital data on the farm has, I see three barriers to its use and adoption.
While there have been several hundred agtech companies formed in the last several years, too many of the tech entrepreneurs have little to no experience on the farm.
The result is a lot of useless products or products that aren’t ruggedized for the extreme conditions of the farm. Where there are valuable, well-designed products, they are point solutions that miss the larger perspective to integrate into overall farm management. A soil moisture sensor that doesn’t provide actionable insights on overall irrigation or crop stress is no help. A hundred point products — even if they are solving the right problems — are not actionable for the farmer.
2. Lack of Connectivity
Most farms I visited had slow internet connections limited to main buildings. Almost none had internet access in the fields. There are two problems here: slow internet connectivity where it exists and lack of connectivity where it is needed for devices.
There are repeaters, gateways, and other hardware that can extend connectivity to the crops, but the farmer should not be the systems integrator. If city folk were told they needed to buy and install their own gateways and repeaters to extend Netflix to the bedroom from the living room, you know what answer you would get. Why should we expect the technical expertise and expense to be carried by our food producers? We need faster and more widely available internet infrastruture in farming areas.
3. Lack of an IoT Specific Network
Even if we extend broadband and cellular infrastructure to the fields, the lack of connectvity problem is more nuanced when we talk about IoT. For IoT devices, we need a network that works over long ranges but also consumes low power.
Most IoT devices send small bits of data — a temperature, a CO2 measurement, a volume. If my cellular bill is to be believed, megabytes (and in some months, gigabytes) of data are sent between my smart phone and the network. To send large data sizes, one needs a cellular or wi-fi network both of which are built for large data sets. However, both cellular and wi-fi consume a lot of battery. That’s why you have to charge your smart phone every day.
For IoT, we need a network built for small data, and, hence, long battery life. Bluetooth is built for small data, but the range is only a few feet. This range is impractical on a farm that may span hundreds or thousands of acres.
Such networks exist: SigFox and LoRa are two examples, but they are new and nascent. Their coverage map is much smaller than cellular is today.
From what I see on a daily basis, I am optimistic that we will overcome these barriers. What’s needed is more collaboration between the technologists and the agriculturalists.
I recently gave talk at the World Food Center at the University of California Davis on IoT on the farm. You can watch my talk below and download a PDF of my slides as they were not captured in the video.
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