Agriculture may not be the most glamorous M2M service sector in today’s heavily populated post-industrial world of the Internet, smartphones, and computer tablets, yet it is very large with many sub-sectors, nevertheless; all of the over 7,000,000,000 humans on the planet these days must eat, after all.
Farm processes and management have become increasingly automated, partaking of the convergence of IT, communications, and automation found in other industries. Unique applications revolve around the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of plants and the raising and slaughtering of livestock but many application areas closely resemble those found in other sectors – Industrial, Transportation, Energy, Buildings, and even Consumer; today’s farm has something in common with the connected home (certain terms in agriculture have different meanings than you might expect; “smart farm” usually refers to farms that employ ecological principles; “connected farm” refers to old New England farms with connected buildings to enable easy transit during snowstorms, even though Connected Farm™ is a Trimble trademark).
A list of applications would include equipment monitoring for mobile vehicles and equipment such as tractors, harvesters, combines, and conveyors; monitoring of stationary equipment such as liquid fertilizer, feedstock, water, and pesticide tanks, dry feedstock bins, generators, and irrigation pumps; and the “precision agriculture” of guidance and control systems for harvesters and related equipment.
Add to this environmental monitoring – weather, soil conditions, water levels, etc.; specialized HVAC and lighting controls and monitoring for agricultural buildings and pens – including greenhouses and poultry buildings, among many others; demand-response systems for electricity-intensive irrigation systems; and IP video monitoring of remote assets of all types, including plants and livestock.
Field workers are as abundant in this sector as others, if not more so, suggesting major field worker M2M opportunities. Some distribution and logistics applications might be seen as part of the Transportation Sector, including fleet management and tracking specialized refrigerated trucks, railcars, and containers, but there’s clearly no shortage of unique M2M applications within this large sector.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these:
Ammonia Tank Monitoring
Tanks for liquids and bins for dry storage are part of large retail distribution networks, with over 7,000 retail locations in North America alone. Often located in remote rural areas, monitoring fulfills multiple functions, including security and as part of logistics systems. As in other sectors, remote monitoring offers important business advantages.
Liquid ammonia, a controlled substance, is used for fertilizer and stored in tanks with capacities ranging from 15,000 to 60,000 U.S. gallons; about 4,000 are in use in North America. Delivery is accomplished through fleets of tanker trucks; the distribution network resembles similar oil and gas networks. Somewhat like seasonal heating oil delivery, delivery is complicated by the fact that customers – farms -- all need ammonia at about the same time. The tank monitoring and fleet management solutions of M2M apply here.
“Precision Agriculture” for Planting, Cultivation, and Harvesting
The huge harvesters and combines in agriculture have much in common with the large expensive mobile equipment found in construction and mining; security is an issue while vehicle diagnostics, fuel consumption, and so on are important but unlike cars and most fleet vehicles, automated and semi-automated control systems are used by some agribusinesses. More importantly, positioning requires a degree of accuracy not found in most GPS location-based systems, in some situations down to a single inch.
Remote Monitoring – Environmental and Plant and Livestock
Environmental monitoring is crucial and intensive in agriculture – in what other sector are weather conditions so very important? Water levels, soil conditions, and temperature all require careful monitoring.
On the plant side, yield monitoring and weed monitoring are closely related; add livestock monitoring when applicable and the need for specialized sensors and M2M systems is apparent.
In North America no single M2M solution provider predominates in agriculture but there are a few large players of note, as well as many smaller specialist companies. A very brief sampling:
Deere & Company
Deere & Company of Moline, Illinois, international equipment manufacturer (2011 Net Sales & Revenue: $32.013 Billion; Net Income: $2.8 Billion) manufactures the familiar John Deere tractors and other agricultural equipment. The Intelligent Mobile Equipment Technologies Group, which includes Phoenix International Corporation, an electronic design and manufacturing company focused on agriculture and construction markets and fully owned by Deere since 1999, is part of growing agricultural service offerings that feature telematics, precision farming, and agricultural management solutions.
PGA M2M, Inc.
A Digi International partner, it’s no surprise that PGA is headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, with offices in North Dakota, as PGA specializes in tank monitoring for both the Oil and Gas and the Agriculture industries, the latter including ammonia fertilizer tank monitoring and dry fertilizer bin monitoring.
Trimble, headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, is well known in the M2M industry. It acquired fleet management service provider PeopleNet last year and Belgium’s Punch Telematix in 2010. Trimble’s Revenue for fiscal 2010 was $1.3 billion, up 15 percent from 2009. Business Segments include Engineering and Construction, Field Solutions, Mobile Solutions, and Advanced Devices.
Trimble’s early lead in positioning and location-based products and services, dating to its founding in 1978, is reflected in its extensive Connected Farm™ offerings including the “precision agriculture” products and services that require much greater precision than that found in most other sectors.
Valley Irrigation is part of Valmont International Corp., headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, and sells mechanized irrigation equipment globally. Involved in “precision irrigation” for over 55 years, its equipment and systems include, increasingly, RF and cellular remote monitoring components familiar to those in the M2M industry.
The agriculture M2M sector is a microcosm of the entire world of M2M, with its numerous vertical sectors. The sector is fragmented, filled with endless applications and sub-sectors, features a great variety of farms of all sizes and specialties, and includes players in great variety as well, whether manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, dealers, or specialized service providers.
You might consider the Agriculture Service Sector and its abundant M2M opportunities during your next meal.
Beecham Research, Ltd.
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