Farming has been a vital part of human civilisation since the dawn of time. Throughout history, farmers have relied on their knowledge, experience, and intuition to cultivate crops and raise livestock. However, in recent years, the agriculture industry has undergone a significant transformation, thanks to advances in technology. Agritech and for our part, the electronics that drives it, is leading the way in this revolution, with cutting-edge tools that are changing the way farmers work and improving the efficiency and sustainability of their operations. In this article, we'll explore the latest innovations in Agritech and how they are shaping the future of farming.
(NB There doesn’t seem to be a definitive proper noun for Agritech, Agtech, Agri-tech so we’re going to refer to this category as Agritech and hope that sticks!)
The Existential Necessity of Securing Future Food Supply for a Growing Global Population
The world's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and that means we will need to produce 70% more food than we do today just to keep up with demand. This increase in demand for food is putting an enormous strain on our agricultural systems, which are already struggling to keep pace. Agriculture is responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption, and it accounts for 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If we continue to rely on outdated farming methods, we risk depleting our natural resources and exacerbating climate change.
The time for action is now
If three years of disruption, turbulence and insecurity across the global supply chain have taught us anything, it is that the food system is ripe for a change. With pressure from demographic shifts, climate struggles and geopolitical conflict, piling on top of pervasive issues such as food insecurity, diet-related health problems, and the weakening of ecosystems worldwide, this change can't happen soon enough. One example, above all, last year the UN estimated that up to 40 % of the planet’s land is degraded, directly affecting half of humanity and threatening roughly half of global GDP (US$44 trillion). This gives you some idea of the scale of these issues are and how critical is for us to all to take action.
The UK has a long history of agriculture, and it is a critical sector of the economy, contributing over £24 billion annually. However, like many other countries, the UK faces significant challenges in maintaining a sustainable and productive agricultural system. To address these challenges the UK government has launched a series of initiatives to promote the adoption of Agritech technology.
For our part, we’re eager to make a contribution by getting involved from the ground up; helping Agritech start-ups through to growing enterprises to deliver the best electronic component solutions to ensure these vital Agritech projects thrive.
The role of Agritech in the future of farming
By harnessing the power of technology, we can make farming more efficient, sustainable, and productive. For example, smart irrigation systems can help farmers reduce water usage by up to 50%, while precision agriculture allows farmers to apply the right amount of fertiliser and pesticides only where they are needed, reducing waste, and minimising the impact on the environment. Coupling such innovations with computer vision and vertical farming has significantly improved farmers’ crop yields, while reducing resource consumption.
Agritech electronics have the potential to improve food security by making farming more resilient to climate change. As extreme weather events become more common, farmers need tools that can help them adapt to changing conditions. For example, drones equipped with thermal cameras can detect crop stress before it becomes visible to the naked eye, allowing farmers to act before it's too late.
The Electronics and Technology Driving the Agritech Revolution
Agritech electronics encompass a wide range of technologies, from sensors and drones to robotics and machine learning. Perhaps the most important infrastructure that most electronic Agritech projects have in common is the internet of things (IoT). IoT devices are small, low-cost sensors that can be embedded in farming equipment, such as tractors, irrigation systems, and storage facilities. These sensors can collect data on things like soil moisture, temperature, and humidity, which can be used to optimise crop production and reduce waste. The always on, always on-line, remote management capabilities gives a level of 24/7 monitoring and autonomy that is just not possible with traditional farming.
Let’s take a bit more of a deep dive into some of the technologies already tried and tested in the field, as well as some of our class-leading semiconductor manufacturers making it happen.
One of the most promising areas of Agritech electronics in the UK is vertical farming. Vertical farming involves growing crops in stacked layers, using artificial lighting and climate control to create optimal growing conditions. This technique has several advantages over traditional farming, including higher crop yields, reduced water usage, and a smaller carbon footprint. Several companies in the UK are already using vertical farming to produce a range of crops, including salad greens, herbs, and strawberries. Indeed Ineltek has already provided MCU solutions from Nuvoton for management and control of the indoor lighting systems required for these installations. We have also implemented Espressif’s wi-fi modules to give remote management and OTA upgrades to vertical farming operations of size and scale.
Nuvoton’s AgriTech capable MCU the MA35D1
Nuvoton's MA35D1 is a microcontroller unit has a specification ideally suited for use in agricultural technology.
One of the key benefits of the MA35D1 is its low power consumption, making it safe for the environment. This means that it can be used in battery-powered devices for extended periods without needing to replace or recharge the batteries. This feature is particularly beneficial in Agritech applications, where devices may need to be left in the field for extended periods of time.
Another benefit of the MA35D1 is its high level of integration. It includes a range of peripherals, such as ADCs and PWM controllers, which can be used to control a range of devices such as motors and sensors. This integration reduces the need for external components, making it a cost-effective solution for Agritech applications.
Furthermore, the MA35D1 offers a range of connectivity options, including USB, Ethernet, and CAN bus. This allows for easy integration with other devices and systems, enabling real-time data collection and analysis. Read more about the MA35D1 in our deep dive into this mighty MCU here.
Precision Agriculture and Autonomous Machinery
Another area where Agritech electronics are making a difference in the UK is precision agriculture. Precision agriculture involves using data analytics, sensors, and other technologies to optimise crop production. By analysing data on soil moisture, temperature, and other factors, farmers can make more informed decisions about when to plant, fertilise, and harvest their crops. This can lead to higher yields, lower costs, and reduced environmental impact. Regular GPS / GNSS positioning systems can only deliver accuracy of c. 0.5m at present which is not accurate enough in practical applications where a harmful chemical or 16t machine in the wrong place could be disastrous. This is where the vastly superior accuracy of Ultra Wideband, UWB, comes in.
Qorvo’s DW1000 Next-Gen Positioning Sensors
Qorvo's DW1000 and DWM1000 UWB IoT modules are revolutionising the agricultural technology space with their ultra-precise positioning systems. The DW1000 IC, which is compliant with IEEE802.15.4-2011 UWB standards, is integrated into a wireless transceiver module that offers many benefits to the Agritech innovation.
One of the most significant benefits of the DW1000 module is its ability to provide real-time location systems (RTLS) with precision up to 10 cm indoors. This precision is essential in agriculture, where knowing the exact location of objects like crops or equipment can lead to increased efficiency and cost reductions.
Additionally, the DW1000 module also offers high data rate communications of up to 6.8 Mb/s. This feature is crucial in agriculture, where real-time data can make a significant impact on decision-making processes.
The DW1000 module's excellent communication range of up to 300 m is also a major advantage. This capability is thanks to coherent receiver techniques and allows for reliable communications in high fading environments. The short packet durations of the module also support high tag densities, allowing for the monitoring of multiple objects simultaneously.
The module's low power consumption is another significant benefit, as it allows for operation from batteries for extended periods. This capability reduces the need to replace batteries and lowers system lifetime costs. Moreover, the module's small physical size allows for the implementation of cost-effective solutions in RTLS and WSN. The integrated antenna also simplifies product implementation, eliminating the need for RF design.
Epson’s IMUs – Inertial Measurement Units for Autonomous Machine Safety
One aspect of Agritech at the forefront of solving this problem, is capitalising on autonomous machinery to boost productivity. Epson's inertial measurement units (IMU) provides an essential safeguard to this revolutionary technology. Achieving accurate positioning data through Qorvo’s UWB modules, doesn’t provide specific data on the terrain conditions and gradients that at autonomous machine might encounter. An Epson IMU can provide crucial feedback to self-correct or provide additional stability to a vehicle, essential If you’re manoeuvring a large machine.
The secret behind Epson's IMUs lies in their high-performance quartz sensor elements. They're made of Epson’s original MEMS processing technology on high-quality crystal material. This gives the devices excellent stability, low power consumption, and low noise characteristics. Plus, using crystal material means the devices are extremely precise and can measure movement ranging from slow to fast.
Because of that, Epson's IMUs can be used in all sorts of applications, from autonomous agricultural vehicles to monitoring crop health. With their linearity characteristics, these devices can measure all kinds of movement, making them incredibly versatile. Potential applications include combining Epson IMU’s unparalleled motion analysis technology with their positioning systems. This would monumentally reduce the human inputs needed for several farming processes.
SIMCom’s cellular IoT for Farming Automation
SIMCom is at the forefront of the evolution towards automated farming; There are a wide range of positioning modules available in SIMCom’s product portfolio, including various levels of GNSS products that can meet different needs in agricultural automation. The GNSS modules that support standard precision positioning working on a single frequency or dual frequencies, such as SIM65M and SIM68D, can achieve the precision of 1.5-2 meters. And the high-precision modules with capabilities such as RTK (Real Time Kinematics), and DR (Dead Reckoning) offers higher precision, usually within 1.5 meters, even to a degree of millimetres.
To better accommodate to the farming applications, SIMCom has strengthened the robustness and performances of its GNSS modules in every possible way. The ability of SIMCom GNSS modules to receive signals from multiple constellations and support SABS ranging, along with high-precision positioning navigation engine and high sensitivity can bring immediate positioning capabilities for various agricultural machinery. With the assistance of advanced AGPS, jamming removing technology and built-in low-noise amplifier, the powerful anti-interference ability and robust hardware design can ensure them to meet the requirements of working in complicated outdoor environments.
SPARK Smart Labels for improved crop management
SPARK Microsystems' Smart Labels for Agriculture are an innovative technology that promises to revolutionise the way we monitor and manage crops. This ground-breaking development has the potential to significantly improve crop monitoring and management, enabling farmers to make more informed decisions about irrigation, fertilisation, and pest control. Spark Microsystems Smart Labels have the potential to make agriculture more sustainable and efficient.
These labels use a unique wireless transceiver technology that achieves high energy efficiency, low latency, and high data throughput, making them suitable for a variety of applications in agriculture. They also have a configurable ultra-wideband (UWB) spectrum, allowing for greater flexibility in signal transmission, and a range of up to 50 meters at 3 Mbps or 100 meters at 500 Kbps. This makes them suitable for use in large fields or orchards.
One of the key advantages of these labels is their ultra-low power consumption, which enables battery-less operation when paired with energy harvesting technologies. This means that the labels can be used in remote or hard-to-reach areas without the need for frequent battery replacements or maintenance.
In addition to energy efficiency, the labels also have a scalable data rate of up to 10 Mbps payload and ultra-short wireless latency below 50 µs @ 1 Kb, making them ideal for applications such as soil moisture sensing, temperature monitoring, and plant growth tracking.
Espressif – adding BLE capability to Wi-Fi IoT
The ESP32-C3-MINI-1U from Espressif is a low-cost, low-power, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module that has potential applications in agricultural technology. This module is designed for Internet of Things (IoT) applications and is based on Espressif's third-generation Wi-Fi/BLE/BLE Mesh networking chip, the ESP32-C3.
In agriculture, the ESP32-C3-MINI-1U can be used for monitoring and control of various agricultural systems, such as irrigation, fertilization, and pest control. With its low power consumption, it is well-suited for battery-powered applications, allowing for remote monitoring and control of systems in the field.
The module's support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth protocols makes it a versatile choice for IoT applications in agriculture. For example, it can be used to connect sensors and other devices to a central hub for data collection and analysis, enabling farmers to make informed decisions about their crops.
In addition, the ESP32-C3-MINI-1U includes advanced security features, such as secure boot and flash encryption, which are important for protecting sensitive agricultural data from unauthorised access.
The Future of Farming and the Role of Agritech Electronics
The role of Agritech in the future of farming cannot be overstated. These cutting-edge tools have the potential to transform the agriculture industry, making it more efficient, sustainable, and resilient to climate change. As the world's population continues to grow, and the demand for food increases, Agritech electronics will play an increasingly critical role in securing our food supply and ensuring that everyone has access to safe, healthy, and affordable food.
A sustainable food supply chain will require significant investment in Agritech and research into new, as yet, undiscovered technologies. By adopting new technologies, we can make farming more efficient, sustainable, and productive, whilst also improving food security and reducing the impact on the environment. However, there are also challenges that must be overcome, such as the high cost of adoption and the need for skilled labour to operate these advanced technologies.
Ineltek is committed to working with start-ups and established businesses in the Agritech space to help them navigate the typical hurdles of any electronic development on a sustainable footing, to maximise the chances of success. Whether it is semiconductor sourcing, component selection, engineering design challenges or even up-scaling manufacturing operations, contact Ineltek now to discover why we can make your Agritech project flourish.