In the 1960s, I saw a large grain elevator fire in Sioux Center, Iowa from seven miles away. Another elevator fire occurred there in 2014. Such elevators can be dangerous, because conveyor-belt friction often combines with dust to create explosive sparks. Employee safety can be enhanced in these elevators with sensors monitoring conveyor-belt heat and automatically starting sprinklers and stopping machines if there is a problem.
In the ’60s, northwest Iowa farms were invaded by army worms. I remember trying to step anywhere without stomping on one of them. Goodbye, lawns and crops. Hello, nothing but dirt. Today, Internet-connected equipment can map worm-invasion routes and counterattack the enemy with pesticides in the right places to avoid overuse. Worm mapping can be done by combining cameras, health sensors (on corn or soybeans), and sensors that assess soil vibrations. Employees would be needed to install the systems but may be useless during fast invasions.
Sensors monitoring crop health, soil temperatures, humidity, wind and pests can inform sprinklers and machines so they run automatically and employees to fix what machines cannot do – yet. A farmer can focus more on managing total farm operations from a laptop rather than doing physical labor in the field. This is part of “smart farming” supported by the Internet of Things. All plants, harvesters, sprinklers, tractors and even employees can be linked to each other virtually.
Much of the technology to coordinate every “thing” is already available from major agriculturally related companies. You can see this simply by searching the Internet using the keywords “Internet of Things” and “Agriculture.”
Seed planting can become more intelligent. Low-yield areas would receive fewer seeds than high-yield ones. Based on data from the prior year, an entire field could be mapped to adjust the quantity of seeds planted. Seed-planting software, global positioning systems, tractors, and weather-monitoring data can combine to provide a farmer with the most productive use of seeds and fertilizer. The planting and harvest data can be sent to suppliers to prepare for the coming year.
The purpose of the agricultural Internet of Things is to help farm operations conserve energy, enhance crop yields, control pests, preserve wildlife, monitor animal conditions, measure soil and plant moisture and temperature. And, of course, to improve profitability.
Some of this linking has downsides. For example, employee health sensors can be linked to a variety of machines. With 100-degree weather in Idaho, sensors can detect body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate so employees can take a break or take in fluids. The amount of fluids they take can be measured by the cups they drink from and reported to the central office. Health enhanced? Yes. Productivity enhanced? Yes. Privacy enhanced? Maybe not.
But ultimately, to strategically run grain elevator and farming operations, it is wise to have the appropriate information about machines, pests, plants, animals, weather, and employees at your fingertips on a computer.