The Internet of Things is heating up. Business spending is predicted to double over the next four years on the so-called IoT, and experts estimate that over half of new businesses will run on it by 2020. There has been a flurry of attention to creating devices ranging from thermostats to wearables that “talk” to each other, analyze information and perform tasks.
Beyond modern-day conveniences, how might the IoT help us address more fundamental challenges, like feeding our growing global population? Companies like Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) are exploring this question. I interviewed Janice Zdankus, HPE’s vice president of quality, who highlighted the potential of the IoT for agriculture, the need to incentivize partnerships between agriculture and technology and opportunities for the next generation of STEM graduates to lead and innovate.
Lorin Fries: Could you describe your role in the technology and innovation space?
Janice Zdankus: Transformative technology is a big part of my role and our company. We believe that applying technology to agriculture can help to sustainably feed the growing world population, and we are fortunate to work on some leading-edge projects in this area. Agriculture provides an opportunity to advance disruptive technology.
Fries: Are there technologies under your purview that can positively influence food and ecological systems?
Zdankus: The Internet of Things is a particularly promising application for agriculture. At HPE, we use our Aruba wireless networking capabilities to collect, secure and send data, filter it with edge computing, and process it with high-performance computing systems. Those systems use algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning to manipulate huge amounts of data and quickly produce recommendations for farmers.
We are testing this through a strategic research initiative with Purdue University, which is using HPE technology to monitor farm fields through sensors. A first use case is the ACRE farm wireless monitoring, which is gathering data each day about the traits and growth of different crops, with the potential to generate and process up to 113 terabytes a week. Another case is an advanced phenotyping facility, a state-of-the-art greenhouse with the capacity to generate 1.2 petabytes per week. These are examples where computing systems can benefit by filtering data at the edge, rather than at the core compute system, to avoid sending all that data back across the campus network.
We can eventually take lessons learned from this project to develop a model to advise farmers on when to plant and water, when to apply fertilizer or pesticides, and how to minimize application and manage runoff, thereby improving yields, reducing waste and lowering farmers’ costs. Such technologies could also be used by tractor vendors, brokers or purchasers of agricultural products to improve crop traceability and enhance the security of the supply chain.
Fries: What are the main challenges to scaling this approach?
Zdankus: A key challenge is how to reach the rural farmer despite low access to broadband, proper technology training and data analysis capabilities. Beyond farmers, existing market players may feel resistant to new approaches. We need to work together with large-scale players; we can’t underestimate the importance of this.
Fries: How could this innovation do harm, and what strategies could mitigate that risk?
Zdankus: With any technology, there’s the potential for someone to misuse it, but the benefits outweigh the risks. Being able to trace data means that it could be hacked, therefore the technologies bring up issues of data security and privacy. That’s why we focus on keeping data about crops and farmers secure. We minimize how much data is sent, and we decentralize where it sits.
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Fries: What makes you most excited about these technologies?
Zdankus: We have a world challenge around hunger and population growth. The Internet of Things provides an opportunity to bridge disparate fields of expertise, including engineers, computer scientists, data scientists and others. There is such an opportunity for disruption in food systems that could have enormous positive impact – and that excites me.
Fries: How do you see industry evolving at the intersection of technology and agriculture?
Zdankus: Relatively few tech industry players are focused on agriculture applications. There’s great opportunity to link the vibrant startup ecosystem to the innovations needed for food systems. Venture capital for agriculture startups is increasing 29% year over year, but seed funding is decreasing. That’s a challenge.
Regarding bigger companies, most people haven’t internalized that to make an investment at scale on a problem like improving food systems, there needs to be a win-win for all. We’ve moved beyond the philanthropic play. There needs to be a market opportunity, along with policy-holders, NGOs and other agencies eager to solve the problems with you.
Fries: What is one wish you have regarding technology innovation in food systems?
Zdankus: I wish we could find the economic incentive to trigger greater partnership between technology and agriculture. There is unrecognized market potential, and we need to raise the visibility of the opportunity. In doing so, we’ll appeal to the next generation of technology innovators. I have yet to meet a millennial who doesn’t want to solve world hunger. I work in STEM mentorship and education, and I’ve seen many youth struggling to see how a huge investment in engineering or a related field can lead to social impact. Food systems provide that opportunity.
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