Driving the fourth industrial revolution with The internet of things in smart agriculture

8 Mar 2021 - 15:00

Soil meter

Image: Freepik

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the key drivers of the fourth industrial revolution, connecting smart devices into a closed network which uses artificial intelligence to optimise its own efficiency. Bontle Mere, a final year student in the Department of Electrical Engineering, explored the application of IoT in agriculture for her final year research project in Engineering in Mechatronics. To do this she used a virtual machine in the ilifu cloud computing facility, a regional data-intensive research facility supported by UCT eResearch.

Bontle Mere graduated from the Department of Electrical Engineering in 2019, for her final year project she explored the application of IoT in agriculture, using a virtual machine in the ilifu cloud computing facility. Her access was organised by UCT eResearch.Technological breakthroughs around the manufacturing of data-collecting sensors is driving new approaches to improving agricultural efficiencies via data mining. These breakthroughs include making them low power consumers, small in size, and cheap to make.

IoT refers to the increasingly common practice of connecting normally non-networked devices to the internet thus enabling industries to capture terabytes of data about their processes. In many cases, by applying both traditional data processing techniques and increasingly machine-learning-based processes to this data, significant efficiency gains can be achieved via optimised resource use, early warning and detection of potential problems, and the detection of trends or patterns that were otherwise invisible.  Both commercial and small-scale agriculture are rapidly adopting such techniques in so-called “smart agriculture” given the significant potential gains in crop and livestock care including watering, soil nutrient control, disease and pest detection, and harvest timing.

IoT to drive smart agriculture

Mere, under the supervision of Dr Jane Wyngaard in the Department of Electrical Engineering, focused her final year research project on “smart agriculture”.

“It is fascinating to me how there is still so much potential to use technology to advance how we farm,” says Mere. “I wanted to explore that; particularly how small-scale farmers can efficiently use different technologies to make their work easier.”

There already exists a myriad of smart devices that capture and process data for various farming applications but in order to create an IoT for agriculture, these devices all need to work together.”

“The trouble is”, says Mere, “they don’t. They are all designed by different companies or even by farmers themselves, using different standards of communication and with different electrical and mechanical requirements.

These differences mean the devices are not interoperable and often cannot connect to one another.”

 

“I had such a great experience using the ilifu facility”, says Mere. “The computational power was incredible, and the team at ilifu were always responsive and willing to help. Having that kind of support, particularly for a young researcher, went a long way to easing frustration and I am eternally grateful for the help and resources ilifu provided me.”

Wyngaard thus tasked Mere with building a reference specification document to define a standard for designing and deploying agricultural devices, which will allow for these devices to work together to share data.

“This reference specification creates a guideline for farmers and companies to build devices that can work together, reducing development time and cost and hopefully increasing innovation and collaboration among farmers across the world”, says Mere.

This document is available under an open-source licence and a demonstration of its implementation was created using open-source tools. By making both the standard and demonstrator open-source, they are available to everyone at no cost and are fully accessible for someone to take and modify or add further enhancements for the benefit of all.

In demonstrating her specification, Mere attached soil moisture and air temperature sensors, and sent this data to a virtual machine she was using as a server, housed in the ilifu cloud. The server processed the data and visualised it using an open-source IoT monitoring tool called Grafana.

Mere gained access to the ilifu facility through UCT eResearch.

“I had such a great experience using the ilifu facility”, says Mere. “The computational power was incredible, and the team at ilifu were always responsive and willing to help. Having that kind of support, particularly for a young researcher, went a long way to easing frustration and I am eternally grateful for the help and resources ilifu provided me.”

More about ilifu

Big data is changing the face of research. To ensure that South African researchers can be global pioneers in data-intensive research fields, particularly astronomy and bioinformatics, a consortium of universities and research organisations established a data-intensive research cloud called Ilifu, which means cloud in isiXhosa. Ilifu is a regional node in the national data infrastructure, partly funded by the Department of Science and Technology, to support the National Integrated Cyberinfrastructure System of South Africa.

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