Developing smart farms
Sriram Rajagopalan & Mathangi Sriram discuss how the use of information and communication technology can boost sustainable farming in India
Agriculture has been recognised as the core of the Union budget for the year 2019-20. The government of India has planned to invest widely in agriculture infrastructure to provide assured income to small and marginal farmers.
To this effect, it has established NITI Aayog, a national think tank to establish and conduct programmes and research on technologies of the future – namely, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) – to facilitate the economic development of our country.
Uzhavan, Ag mobile, CCMobile and IFFCO Kisan are some of the applications developed keeping in mind emerging requirements in farming. They are meant to supplement already existing electronic initiatives such as e-choupal, Agri market, Kisan Suvidha and the more recent e-NAM.
The current budget has outlined the setting up of 20 new technology business incubators in order to develop at least 75,000 skilled entrepreneurs in the agro-rural industry.
Furthermore, 805 crore rupees have been allocated to Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY). These additional funds are meant to address critical gaps in the value chain including infrastructure, modernisation, traceability, production, productivity, post-harvest management and quality control through integration of the latest technologies. In time these initiatives will pave the way to achieving long-term sustainable agriculture goals of environmental health, economic profitability and social and economic equity.
In 2013, research was conducted in China on the effects of inculcating cloud computing and IoT (Internet of Things) into agricultural practices. The research showed that the integration of IoT in farming facilitated soilless culture, solution control technology, artificial photosynthesis technology, growing environment control technology (carbon dioxide density, humidity, wind pressure and speed) and intelligent irrigation technology.
Following through on the research, China's industry and information ministry has achieved remarkable success in projects like 'Every village project', 'Golden Agricultural Project', 'Three Dian project (Computer, Television and Telephone network coverage in the rural area)' among others.
The emphasis in such projects was laid on hardware rather than software which meant that proper information was not always provided to the farmers. This led to the development of an agricultural information cloud based on the integration of IoT and RFID (radio frequency identification) technology.
In recent years, the agricultural sector has visualised the integration of IoT and farming practices in the development and conceptualisation of plant factory technology. For example, a lighting sensor and a video sensor can show the distribution of the intensity of light in real-time and monitor the size of the plant. This would help determine the stage of the plant growth. Thus, the condition of the plants can be discerned in real-time by the spectral analysis of the images of the plant.
Data from the global positioning systems (GPS) and wireless sensor nodes (WSN) also served as powerful monitoring tools to supervise parameters and correlate between them. Geo-referencing methods that employed the use of unmanned drones were observed to have a positive impact on crop cultivation and pesticide control.
Data stored in these sensors and farm equipment and machinery
was shared periodically to farmers through a mobile phone connected
to GPRS. Farmers could remotely
monitor and control on-field sensors like switching on/off a pump/valve when the water level in the field reaches a specific threshold value or take important decisions with the help of deep learning algorithms involving crop management.
In Brazil, the Smart Farming project was studied intensively. It involved digital revolution, AI and mobility with intelligent sensors. It led to the identification of more innovative products, process optimisation and managing effective agricultural production.
In 2014, this project was executed as a collaborative effort between Dutch research institutes, Dutch industry and Dutch agricultural businesses. The collaboration led to the Smart Farming consortium investigating the possibility of using remote sensing solutions in the cultivation process.
The trend in variables like sunlight, humidity, temperature and rain patterns was obtained from the archives of Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute to gain prior knowledge on deviations in seasons in comparison with previous years. From the satellite images, the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values were deduced, which served as an indication of the amount of photo-synthetically active vegetation on the region.
Using historical analysis, the variety-specific NDVI curve was established and its relationship between the variables was identified. This information was observed to be crucial in the formulation of data-driven models. In the year 1980-1983, a global study on vegetation types was conducted using satellite images. It was observed that the NDVI correlated with vegetation parameters such as green-leaf biomass and green-leaf area. Incidentally, India was found to have high NDVI values. This could potentially serve as a key driver to increase sustainable farming practices in India.
In 2018 NextOn, a South Korean company successfully built the country's largest smart farm inside an abandoned road tunnel. The indoor farm provided ideal conditions with a steady temperature and the right amount of artificial light and the rest of the factors were controlled by IoT.
The company signed an agreement with the South Korea government to develop an indoor vertical farm as an alternate solution to prevent damages to crops due to extreme weather conditions. It successfully cultivated more than 60 different types of fruits and vegetables. Foods produced from the farm were found to be healthier as they had reduced insect infestations being in a closed environment.
In India, the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences and Agricultural Meteorology Division of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) have, in their mission 2030, proposed the formation of an integrated unit involving the IMD and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). This will be done in collaboration with the different institutions like agricultural universities, ICAR Institutes, the state department of agriculture, department of information technology, department of space, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and non-governmental organisations. The inter-institutional collaboration could be further strengthened at national and international level in the field of agro-meteorological activities.
The National Mission on Agricultural Extension and Technology (NMAET) as a part of the sustainable development group aims to strengthen and restructure mechanisation and plant protection to enable the delivery of improved agronomic practices to farmers. This was planned to be achieved through interactive methods, using information and communication technology (ICT). This includes messaging services, web-based applications, capacity building, institutional strengthening, encouragement of public-private partnership and training services to guide farmers.
The Indian government has acknowledged the role of ICT in agriculture for sustainable intensive farming. The newly established farmer-producer organisations further ensure that farmers get a fair price for their produce and understand the ease of doing business by enabling a conducing atmosphere between central and state apparatus.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)