A Nervous System for the Farm

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Sensors only Work when Connected to the 'Brain Centre'

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While attending the InfoAg Conference in St. Louis in July, I sat in on a session where the speaker talked about creating a ‘nervous system’ for the farm. I haven’t been able to get this compelling idea out of my head ever since. What would it actually look like? 

At the core of this idea is the proliferation of sensors and connectivity throughout agriculture. This explosion of technology is expected to dwarf the adoption rate of computers, smart phones and tablets. 

So, what will it mean for agriculture? 

First, sensors will provide farmers with more information about what is happening at the farm level. What is the soil moisture on that field 34 kilometres away? There’s a sensor for that. What’s the temperature in that 10,000-bushel wheat bin that is currently socked in by snow drifts? There’s a sensor for that. What’s the compaction rate of the tires on my tractor based on the air pressure? You guessed it, there is a sensor for that, too. 

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Now, imagine that all of these sensors are not disparate information feeds, but rather that they are connected in the same way that our fingers and toes are connected, via our nervous system, to the rest of our body. 

Under this scenario, the sensors could feed information to the ‘nervous system’, where it would be compiled with the data coming in from other sensors. In the same way that our arm moves quickly if our finger touches a hot stove, these on-farm sensors could also trigger automatic actions, allowing the farm to ‘react’ in the same way our bodies do. We wouldn’t have to think and act on every decision to be made on the farm — some would be automatic. 

Here’s how it would work: Let’s say soil moisture is getting low. A sensor picks it up, ‘checks’ the weather information to find out that there’s no rain in the forecast, and automatically turns on the irrigation pivot to apply the right amount of water to that particular spot in the field. 

Or, let’s say your grain temperature or moisture is rising. When the sensors pick up this information, they send a signal to automatically turn on your aeration systems to facilitate the necessary air flow, or turn on the augers for a turning of the grain. 

Based on soil conditions, sensors could detect excess tire compaction and automatically adjust the tire pressure to reduce soil compaction. 

At the conference, I saw these innovations in action. There were sensors that could be placed on tomato plant stems to monitor growth rates based on increases in stalk diameter. These could be linked to a system that would turn on fertilizer application in a greenhouse. 

These are all examples of a nervous system that can act without thinking. It starts with the sensors, and their connectivity to a central nervous system. In the case of a farm, that central nervous system is your data platform — the ‘brain centre’ where all your data is collected and organized so it can be seamlessly analyzed. 

If you had fingers or toes that were cut off from your body’s central nervous system, they would lose their ability to function properly. The same is true for disparate farm data — do you have information that isn’t connected to the whole? Is your data disparate or congruent? Is your data platform — the central nervous system — tying it all together?

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That is the key question. If you do, the next question is this: Is your farm data platform scalable? In other words, is it robust enough to facilitate the connectivity of an exploding number of sensors that will be hitting your farm in the very near future? Indeed, it’s already begun. 

Finally, will your data platform be able to facilitate the vital ‘acting without thinking’ step? Because that’s where all of this is leading. At the end of the day, your data system must be capable of making sense of the complex algorithms and ‘fuzzy logic’ being collected in order to make your sensors truly work for you.

Want to learn more about this? Join us December 2-5th in Saskatoon at The Farm Forum Event (www.TheFarmForumEvent.com) as we explore this year’s theme, The Digital Farm. 

See you there!

About the Author
Robert Saik

Saik is the founder and CEO of Agri-Trend Inc., a Canadian agricultural coaching network that includes agronomic, grain marketing, business, technology, carbon offset and land management services. He holds a BSc in Agriculture from the University of Alberta, is a Professional Agrologist and Certified Agricultural Consultant.

He owned and operated a farm in northeastern Alberta, founded and subsequently sold two fertilizer companies, and is currently a partner in a Calgary marketing and design firm. Saik an active professional speaker, entertaining and educating audiences around the world on strategic business planning, technology integration and social media in agriculture.

He can be reached at rsaik@agritrend.com.

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