The so-called “smart agriculture” market is projected to reach $13.5 billion by 2023. As technologies like the Internet of Things transform business and farming operations from the U.S. to East Africa and India, there is enormous opportunity to improve the quality and sustainability of our food – not just the volume of yield. I spoke with Tony Franklin, General Manager for the Internet of Things at Intel Corporation, about the trends and examples he sees in this space.
Lorin Fries: How does Intel address food systems through its Internet of Things (IoT) portfolio?
Tony Franklin: We try to identify how our technologies can be applied to solve problems for target markets and customers. We focus primarily on high-performance computer technologies, as well as communication technologies, which have great applicability for food systems. We work closely with a broad ecosystem of partners to enable more data collection about the environment, to analyze that data, and to improve our ability to make decisions that improve operations, including on farms.
Fries: Could you give examples?
Franklin: Take an autonomous tractor. With it, you can measure everything. You’re passing over a particular space and you can identify certain plants from other plants, like weeds, and then you can take action based on that. You can choose to spray in a certain area, not in another area, and you can do all of that at what we call the “edge.” Another example is the monitoring of farm land. You can put instruments on the land to understand soil moisture conditions, air conditions, the amount of sunlight, wind, and other factors, using that information to inform water use on your particular property.
Fries: What’s an exciting trend you see where the IoT meets food and the environment?
Franklin: Computer vision. I’ve been talking to several startups in this space, and I’ve been impressed by the amount of companies looking to leverage this technology and the data that can be acquired through it. Using that data, we’ve seen applications using high-performance processing, which you need to make decisions at the edge rather than someone physically examining every product. Computer vision can look at the quality of the produce that that you’re growing, such as by looking for contaminants. The opportunity space is a perfect storm: increasing performance capabilities and cloud computing capabilities, decreasing cost of storage, and ubiquitous communication tools.
Fries: What barriers do you see to using IoT more broadly?
Franklin: Security and privacy. We’ve made it a priority to implement security down at the silicon level, at the lowest level of the platform architecture, to try to address these concerns. And this space is not something that that one company can address by itself. There have to be partnerships to address the various use cases. We have leveraged our Internet of Things Solutions Alliance to enable a broader ecosystem of companies: we have over 6,000 solutions across many IoT industries, delivered by about 500 partners.
Fries: The IoT is extraordinarily powerful, but it’s not available those on the other side of the digital divide. Do we risk excluding smallholder farmers, further accentuating access disparities?
Franklin: There’s no question that one size does not fit all. Over ten years ago we formed a partnership with the Grameen Foundation called Technology for Social Impact. Agriculture is one of the focus areas, including targeting the smallholder farmer. Some of the technologies that are being developed and applied for large farms will have to be modified, and their applicability assessed, for smallholders. But if we realize that there are 500 million smallholders around the world, that’s a community that cannot be ignored.
As a related effort, we’ve focused on using low-power wireless technologies to help with water conservation on farms. This can allow for lower-cost solutions to aggregate more information about the environment and to help to reduce the resources needed for growing food. That is an area where the IoT can deliver value both for large and smallholder farmers.
Fries: Your team recently conducted a survey about technologies that could address food and ecological challenges. What insights did it offer?
Franklin: The survey looked at emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, the IoT and 5G, and how those can be applied to sustainability challenges. There’s an incredible amount of untapped potential for emerging technologies to solve long-standing environmental challenges. With less than half of respondents saying that they don’t know about or are not using emerging tech, it’s clear we need to better educate others about the long-term savings and benefits, so they can overcome immediate barriers. While the results are encouraging, our collective focus will need to be on action – building widespread adoption through collaboration and innovation – in order to drive true transformation.