While small businesses are increasingly identifying and leveraging the big opportunities inherent to digitization, one industry is lagging far behind: agriculture. Only 20 percent of farmers are using the digital options available to them. Yet the Internet of Things in particular holds major promise for them.
Steffen Hake is an exception. This dairy farmer from Wagenfeld-Ströhen, Germany has gone full digital when it comes to his farm and 240 cows: he uses automated feeding machines, milking robots and collars that measure the cow's vital data and send him a text message when they are in heat or about to calf.
What just a few years ago seemed inconceivable to Steffen Hake is now reality, even if many farmers in Germany are slow to warm to it. Just 20 percent of farmers are harnessing the potential for digitization, found a survey by industry association Bitkom . Yet there's lots of promise in this technology. A study by Bitkom found that agriculture could, by networking the individual product steps digitally, harness almost three billion euros in added value over the next ten years – representing growth of 1.2 percent annually. The effects are observed most clearly in the use of mobile devices for simpler, more flexible and timely production planning and controls, as well as ad hoc networking of agricultural equipment.
This goes beyond networking of large harvesters as is common in big agricultural operations: GPS mapping helps machines harvest fields down to two centimeters of precision. The market researchers from Roland Berger estimate the global market volumes for such "precision farming" at 12 percent annually. Claas, an agricultural equipment producer in Harsewinkel, Germany, takes the approach a step further.
Its "365FarmNet" system is intended to give farmers full control of all data involved in raising livestock, fertilizer consumption, machine operating hours, seed and quality, as well as the precise composition of the harvest. The digitally networked tractor draws on location data but also collects data that can be bundled with other information. "Measurement data from the previous harvest can be used to deploy fertilizer and pest protection only where it's needed," says Claas spokesman Wolfram Eberhardt.
Winemaking can also benefit from digitization. Network outfitter Ericsson is currently running a field trial involving sensors to help winemakers with their harvests. They track moisture levels in the air and soil, the intensity of the sunlight and nutritional composition of the soil, and transmit this data to the cloud. Winegrowers can use a smartphone app to review the growth of their harvest at any time and respond to changes in climate as necessary.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known in popular parlance as drones, have come to represent a mature technological solution for highly flexible data acquisition over agricultural spaces. This is also a focus for Dr. Eike Stefan Dobers from the Geodata working group at the German Agricultural Society (DLG). They can use the decades of experience gathered in the area of remote diagnosis from various branches of science and apply it flexibly for agriculture. But the Internet of Things also holds promise for indoor applications, such as in the stall where it is especially helpful for the automated feeding and milking machines that log in precise detail which animal ate what or was milked when.
If the values fluctuate suddenly, then the system warns the farmer and indicates any potential illnesses. Steffen Hake, the dairy farmer, uses a system where the collars worn by the cows also notify him wirelessly that the animals are entering into heat. He used to have to visit the stalls four times a day for at least 20 to 30 minutes each to gain this information. He and his team can now use these 90 minutes for other activities.
One reason that the Internet of Things remains underutilized in agriculture is the relatively high investment costs that farmers need to pay up front to set up a digital farm. In the long run, consistent digitization actually delivers lower costs – which could be of existential importance in the current environment of lower prices for agricultural producers.
In terms of the overall economy, the Internet of Things seems poised to make a gigantic leap. Experts are predicting that 24 billion devices will turn into "smart" devices and start connecting to the internet in the next four years. This will include at least 10 billion smartphones by 2020.
In light of these trends, CeBIT has bundled topics related to the Internet of Things into one unified exhibition area in Hall 13. Farmers aren't the only ones who'll benefit from a visit.