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Investing in Farm Tech

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted September 22, 2015

As a tech columnist, I sometimes hate the term “Internet of Things.”

I’ve been writing about it for so long for so many publications, and it seems such a stupid distinction, a meaningless name.

At its heart, the Internet of Things is the same old Internet we know and love, except it includes things that aren’t computers or servers or mobile devices. It’s the Internet with new stuff.

The term glosses over so much of the innovation and lumps it all into the same lifeless, vague name.

Indeed, that is actually one of the most exciting qualities of the Internet of Things: that its impact is going to be so diverse.

Take farming, for example. Producing vegetables is contingent upon so many factors that it’s nothing short of a miracle that our stupid primate brains figured it out at all. Weather, genetics, and chemistry all play an essential role in growing the food, and when it’s time to sell, complex economics takes over.

All the data in the wild (live weather, live commerce data, live sensor data) could be intelligently applied to improve farming.

Over the last decade, Japan’s food self-sufficiency and international agricultural competitiveness have been major issues, forcing the country to reconsider how its farms worked.

Who stepped in but the tech sector?

Japanese electronics companies Toshiba and Fujitsu converted old factories into vertical farms for producing leafy greens. Similar to large-scale medical marijuana growers, these companies started growing their vegetables in near-sterile “clean rooms.”

Inside, they use a whole bunch of new Internet of Things technology to maximize productivity.

Fujitsu took its expertise in clean rooms for semiconductor manufacturing and applied it to grow rooms that yield low-potassium vegetables suitable for consumption by dialysis patients and people with chronic kidney disorders.

The infrastructure of Fujitsu’s clean rooms is tightly managed, making energy and resource consumption extremely efficient. Its operations are handled by a cloud-based food and agriculture management platform known as Akisai.

It collects sensor and user-submitted data of daily operations and planting data and analyzes it in the cloud. This lets farmers visualize cost and quality information and can be applied to all aspects of agricultural management, including animal husbandry, horticulture, sales, and open field cultivation.

Because the vegetables are grown in a clean room where the temperature, air pressure, lighting, bacteria, and even dust are all controlled, they don’t need pesticides.

It’s a different take on organic farming.

Toshiba’s factory works on a similar principal and has the capacity to produce about three million heads of lettuce per year, including leaf lettuce, baby leaf greens, spinach, mizuna, and herbs.

Toshiba uses remote monitoring systems to track growth, and employees interact with the management system on tablets. Lighting, moisture, and temperature are all intelligently adjusted to maximize growth.

These “vertical farms” are potential solutions to a host of problems. In urban areas, where there’s literally no viable place to grow, a vertical farm could take up residence. This could simultaneously solve food desert problems and open up new employment opportunities. On a broader scale, these farms provide a highly predictable environment for agriculture when the natural environment remains uncontrollable.

Predictability goes hand in hand with increased knowledge, and increased knowledge comes after crunching massive amounts of data. That data will come from the sensors and systems that make up the Internet of Things.

So when considering the Internet of Things, remember that it is as much a tool of conservation as it is a tool of communication. 

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