Data, Bees and Food Production

Bees. They terrify millions, are the subject of a great movie and an even greater meme, are integral to food production around the world, and now, they are the latest tool in a growing arsenal of data collection and Internet of Things devices.

A recent project carried out by researchers at the University of Washington involved strapping ‘backpacks’ – actually very, very light sensors – to bees, in order to collect data on things like humidity, light and temperature.

By doing this, the researchers can check on crops and assess how conducive environment is in facilitating the growth of food – something fairly integral on a farm – where previously they might have used drones or more likely, a much more manual form of observation.

Another project, developed by Intel and the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, also used tiny sensors to help track bees, after a noticeable drop in their population prompted fears about disease, and a resulting food shortage, given the insects’ important place in the food chain.

These two projects are coming at a similar problem from a different angle – one looking to use bees to help improve observation of existing food production environments, another using sensors to observe bees in the hope that they can help them back to a healthy population and thereby improve our food production capabilities.

But they both fit into the world of smart farming, where agricultural environments are carefully monitored and huge amounts of very granular data is collected in order to get a better hold of what’s really going on and how to make food in the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way.

It almost goes without saying that collecting data on this sort of thing is useful, particularly in the world of agriculture, where the ability to observe and control complicated external factors is often one of the hardest parts of the job. But what’s especially important here is the need to observe increasingly small subsections of land or crops, to get a better idea of what’s happening on every part of a farm.

Farming smart

Dr. Hugh Martin, principal lecturer in agricultural science at the Royal Agricultural University, has said that technologies like GPS, meteorological data and RFID, used with “geo-mapping, yield mapping, high precision positioning systems and variable rate application systems”, helps production systems to address “variations for input requirements on a very fine scale”.

By doing this, he says, one key thing changes – it cuts out a lot of the need for human manual labour. Crop weeding, spraying, monitoring and diagnostics, fruit picking and selection, and many other field operations have been “made possible by autonomous machines through the development of computer vision and cloud-based processing of data”, says Martin.

And by using these smart techniques, it’s possible to eliminate waste on a “grand scale”, he says. Because agriculture is “dependent upon inputs being delivered at the right time and in the right quantity”, machines are much better at doing this than humans.

The big problem

Efficiency savings are great, as is using automation and data to improve industrial processes – particularly when it comes to protecting the environment. But agriculture is perhaps the most important industry in the world – it literally puts food on our place. And it is in dire need of modernisation. It’s an often-quoted fact that a third of the world’s food is wasted, and given the number of people that don’t have enough to eat across the world, that’s a tragic statistic.

As well as that, as the world’s population continues to increase at an exponential rate, and with an ever-decreasing amount of arable land on which to grow crops and farm animals, this problem only looks set to get worse.

That’s where smart farming comes in. A recent report from the UK government project Innovate UK says that to “measure and interpret data arising through a food supply chain, determine the variances and look at ways to reduce these”, raises the “overall productivity of the supply chain, as well as reducing the environmental impact and improve food quality”.

And by doing that, it says, innovative farmers can improve yields for all the extra mouths that need feeding as well as increasingly resilient plant diseases.

That means that by using data in a smart way, we can feed more people, and improve the amount and quality of food that gets to people that don’t currently get enough to eat. Working in big data and analytics, then, means that you can literally save the world.

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