Monday, January 13, 2014

"Internet of Things" for China's Agriculture

China's latest plan for agriculture is to substitute big data and artificial control for traditional farming methods.

On January 10, Vice Minister of Agriculture Yu Xinrong announced the launch of regional pilot "Internet of things agriculture projects." The "Internet of things" (物联网) is the network of gadgets and sensors that are connected through the Internet, collect and compile vast amounts of data and can be controlled remotely from computers or mobile phones. Applications are mainly for remote-controlled greenhouses, animal traceability systems, and monitoring of transportation and storage facilities.
System design for Internet of Things in agriculture and logistics.

The pilot projects are in Tianjin, Shanghai, and Anhui. Mr. Yu made the announcement during a trip to Shanghai where he visited the Bio-tag Ltd. Co. which makes electronic tags for animals, the Shanghai Infrastructure Agriculture Internet of Things Base, a vegetable company, the Shanghai Internet of Things Service Center, the animal traceability electronic service center, and the Plant Growth Perception Demo and had discussions with experts and company executives.

Vice Minister Yu said that the recent "agricultural work meeting" in Beijing recommended relying on science and technology-support and innovation-drive to follow the path of modern agriculture with Chinese characteristics. The "Internet of things" strategy will be "government-guided" and "market-driven." Policies supporting technology and innovation will support the Internet of things strategy, said Mr. Yu. The strategy emphasizes "system design" and a concept of "whole system, all factors, whole process."

Tianjin's agriculture commission's description of its projects gives some clues about what "Internet of things" agriculture is. The project is described as part of the municipality's transition from traditional agriculture to information-ization and intelligent development. Other buzz words include "science and technology planning," "small and medium enterprises," "high-tech companies," and "metropolitan-style agriculture."

Over the past two years, 14 Tianjin projects have received public investment of 3.34 million yuan ($547 million) and private investment of 27 million  yuan ($4.4 million) in research, demonstration and use of "Internet of things" in agriculture. Four key projects illustrate the applications of "Internet of things".

First is a system for climate control in greenhouses. An intelligent engineering system designed for artificial control of greenhouse temperature and air collects data and sends out warnings when temperature falls dangerously low in the cold winter months. A second project is aimed at improving food safety by monitoring microorganisms in milk at each stage "from cow to table." The dairy monitoring is said to increase transparency and improve the reputation and competitiveness of dairy companies.

A third project addresses problems in the chicken industry by again collecting and storing data on the various stages of the supply chain. The chicken project also plans to set up a system for remotely offering advice to farmers on disease diagnosis and prevention. This is supposed to raise profits for companies and attract more farmers to raise chickens and earn more money.

The fourth project addresses problems with growing vegetables in plastic-covered hothouses. This will use the latest micro-power wireless technology to collect data from temperature and humidity sensors and early detection of pests. Vegetables will be tracked and monitored visually in transportation and storage using GPS, RFID, sensing, and GIS to facilitate scheduling.

Diagram of vegetable hothouse using "Internet of Things" wireless technology.

China has a long love affair with technology and engineering solutions for agriculture. They have been building space-age agricultural facilities since the 1980s and much of this technology was used in Beijing's food safety system during the 2008 Olympics. Treating the food system like a space program may achieve impressive results but such systems fall into disuse once officials have lost interest, equipment breaks down and no one knows how to use it properly. Agriculture is a complex activity and there is no substitute for a farmer who knows his land and his customer.

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