Welcome Back to Exponential Thinking: Part 3
Last time we covered the conjunction of aquaponics and sustainable energy. We discussed the late great Nikola Tesla and humanity’s journey towards, “attaching our machinery to the very wheelwork of nature.”
Huge strides in sustainable energy like the Tesla battery pack and the Soliculture transparent pink solar panels are being made every day. Meanwhile, as you readers know, the aquaponics industry is growing by leaps and bounds. Aquaponics is in its early stages of life as a global industry and as such, is uniquely positioned to become energy sustainable. As the early aquapioneers, it is our opportunity to integrate all this amazing technology into our systems in order to make them even more sustainable and productive than they are now. The future of food is being written today and sustainable energy is vital to that future.
Sustainable energy is only one facet of the exponential technologies being applied to aquaponics In this month’s installment, we’ll be discussing Smart Agriculture and some of the amazing strides to make robots our beasts of burden for the future!
So, What is Smart Agriculture?
Smart Agriculture, or Precision Agriculture, is the marriage of farming and sensor/controller technology. The applications of smart ag. extend into every facet of the way we grow our food.
This might sound like science-fiction, but in reality, it is science-fact.
Smart agriculture is the next step in the natural progression of humanity’s agricultural pursuits. A brief look at the history of agriculture shows farming as the movement towards replicating and expanding on nature’s abundance.
First, we used manual labor to till and harvest our fields. We domesticated beasts of burden like goats and donkeys to alleviate the labor load and increase the amount of land each individual farmer could work.
After a few thousand years of manual labor and animal husbandry, we entered the realm of chemical agriculture and artificially produced fertilizers. This again increased the amount of land any given farmer could work. However, after a century or two of this, we are just now seeing some of the deleterious effects this artificial means of agriculture has on our environment.
Chemical agriculture is now giving way to ecosystem agriculture with industries like aquaponics, permaculture, and agroforestry coming to the forefront as our agricultural pursuits continue to be refined in nature’s image.
This is where smart agriculture comes in.
In order to fully grasp the potential of smart ag., we must understand the Internet of Things. We all know that the Internet links the computers of the world to create a vast networked ecosystem. Well, the number of sensors (like your iPhone, smart TV, and smart thermostat) is expected to exceed 1 TRILLION sensors in the world by 2025 by Cisco and many other industry analysts. These smart devices are becoming linked just like our computers into what is known as the Internet of Things.
With trillions of sensors networked across the globe, there will be an unprecedented amount of data and the insights drawn from that data stand to benefit every part of our lives. A smart home keeps you comfortable and minimizes electric bills. A smart car drives you to work while you watch the news and eat breakfast behind the automated wheel. A smart refrigerator that tracks your milk levels and automatically schedules new deliveries so you never run out of your favorite food items. The Internet-of-Things is all around us, already embedding itself into our daily lives.
These sensors are already being used by pioneering farmers to connect their farms and draw useful insights from the data. By combining weather forecasts, soil readings, and live market pricing, farmers can now estimate their crop production and crop value like never before.
What are the Benefits of Smart Agriculture?
The benefits of smart agriculture are many, despite the fact that the technology is still in its infancy.
Smart Agriculture creates many co-beneficial situations where the farmer and his product actually both benefit from it.
Dairy farmers are using smart systems to actually let their cows dictate their milking schedule. For as long as we’ve kept cows, our farmers had to religiously milk their entire herd twice a day. Now, thanks to these smart systems, a cow can mosey up to the milking station whenever she feels the desire to relieve herself of her milk. The robotic milkman senses the individual cow by her udders, brings up her personal preferences and the robotic milk machine goes to work. Now the farmer is freed from his daily milking schedule and the cows are happier because they can get milked whenever they want to.
We set up systems that are easier on the farmer (thank the Lord for SMS text updates on pump failures!) and better for our plants and fish. In fact, we can use smart ag. technology to track and optimize growth for every plant and fish type. Basically, we can give the plant its perfect, most favorite environment automatically, ensuring that it thrives.
The same optimization techniques we use to grow better plants removes barriers and allows just about anyone to operate a system successfully. No longer is a lifetime of experience a prerequisite to being a farmer. Instead, we can utilize a smart aquaponics system that can show you nutrient deficiencies before they get out of control and even tell you when the plants are ready to harvest. Go from a novice to a green-thumb with the press of your thumb!
This benefit alone stands to shift the way all food is grown. As smart agriculture technologies come online, a new wave of farmers will be empowered to grow food sustainably for their communities. This will disrupt the current model of massive monoculture farms and massive distribution chains by creating a networked community of farms in every community.
The best part about the smart agriculture revolution is that it only benefits from age, much like a fine wine grown from the best-tended grapes. As the network of connected farms grows, network effects start kicking in and we can draw insights from the massive amounts of data. Imagine a network of farms around the world: farms in similar climates around the globe can share complementary data sets to learn new techniques and best practices, allowing unique production methods to be unlocked and sent around the globe.
A large network of smart systems creates a massive amount of data. Over time, insights, best practices and specific tactics for optimal growth. This is our digital mycelium, connecting distributed farms together into a single integrated network. Mycelium, the white fuzzy stuff you see when you kick up some leaves from the forest floor, connects the roots of all the plants of the forest. The mycelium networks the forest together into a single massive organism. This is just like our networked computers and our connected systems. Each node in the network can signal its data to the rest of the group. By moving towards a connected farm system, we are continuing our heritage as farmers. We continue to emulate nature’s design in order to unlock her abundance.
So How Does It Work?
The Harvard Business Journal defines a “product stack” as the new norm for a smart network system, whether you are working with smart farms, smart homes, or smart cars.
The product stack is set up in four major steps, which each one relying on the ones before it to work.
The first step is sensors. Sensors are already very prevalent in agriculture. Grain farmers use them in their fields to track rainfall. Hydroponic farmers use them to track electrical conductivity in the water, which helps them track nutrient levels in the reservoir. Basically, a sensor is a device that receives and tracks information from the world around it. It is like our 5 human senses. We can use cameras to see our system, microphones to listen to it, probes to feel it, etc. Sensing is the first step in making a smart system because it is what allows the system to react to its surroundings. A system without sensors is blind, deaf, dumb, and paralyzed, unable to learn from or interact with its surroundings in a meaningful way.
Once the sensors are in place, we come to control. Using controllers, like a solenoid valve, we can actually make changes to our system. Let’s say our pipes clog and the system is about to flood: our water-level sensor would recognize that the water moved past a certain designated spot and then send a message to our controller. The controller would recognize the situation and then send a message to the solenoid valve, shutting off the water flow. The intention of this sequence would be to stop the system from flooding before it becomes a problem.
Once you have your sensor and controller system in place, things really start to get interesting. Optimization is the next step in creating a smart system. As data accumulates, new mathematical processes can draw out deep insights and create new, optimized strategies that were not apparent before.
This idea is seen in Google’s smart cars. As each individual car racks up more time on the road, every car in the fleet benefits from the data gained there and adaptive algorithms turn that insight into new processing rules. This means fewer crashes and optimized routes. Likewise, a connected network of aquaponics system would learn from one another: for instance, it might indicate which plants grow best in different media types, how different microclimates affect growth in a region, and many more insights await us in the future of food.
The sensors and controllers are continuously refined via the optimization processes until we reach the fourth and final stage of smart system creation, automation. Automation means that the system runs without human intervention. For a car, this means that you climb in, set the destination, and then you do whatever you like until the car arrives at your destination. An automated farm might look like a system that plants for you, tracks plants through their growth cycle, plucks out diseased plants or pests, and then harvests ready-to-ship plants for you.
Automation represents the “holy grail” of smart technology because it means that the system has actually become able to track and grow itself over time, in something akin to self-awareness. The automated smart system learns from its surroundings with sensors, controls its behavior accordingly, optimizes its actions based on historical results of its previous actions, and then repeats that process on its own automatically. Now I may just be a simple aquaponics farmer (who happens to have a degree in philosophy) but this sounds pretty close to self-awareness! Isn’t that something normally reserved only for living beings?
Are there any downsides of Smart Agriculture?
With any new technology comes the potential for downsides, pitfalls, and outright disasters. When we ask questions like the one above, whether or not an adaptive network of systems with self-awareness blurs the lines between machine and life, we really must ask ourselves, “what is the downside potential of smart agriculture?”
I see a few right off the cuff, namely that an overreliance on smart technology will lead to a lack of vigilance and any real skills. It is vital that our food production remains a closely human experience. Smart farms should empower the return of the human touch to our farms, not sever our connection to our food entirely. As we move forward, it is vital for we aquapioneers to find ways to use this smart technology that honors our role in growing our food. I believe smart farms, including aquaponics, will empower everyone to grow their own food. I hope that this will go a long way to strengthening our local food ecosystems and creating a deeper connection to our food.
Another fear or potential downside of smart agriculture is that the data collected will be abused by the people who collect it. Will the insights derived from the smart network be freely available to all farmers? How much will it cost to access the network? What will the service contracts look like? A recent presentation by Chris Wasden at 2014 MEC showed how even as the cost of sensors decrease, the number sold increased and therefore profits for the industry increased. A sensor that costs $30 today will cost $0.026 in 2025. That means the immense power of the Internet of Things will ultimately be available to anyone in the world.
Data privacy is a rapidly growing concern across the entire technology sector. We can see tech giants like Google and Facebook constantly updating their privacy policies to reflect the growing concern the public has for their privacy security online.
Smart systems will need to make data security paramount. The power of a data-based approach is based on transparency and openness. In addition, it must be made equitable for all. What good is all that insight if it only benefits a small number of massive corporations? Smart farm systems are for the betterment of all humanity and our planet itself. It is our duty as aquapioneers to bring this message into the future with us.
Who are the existing players in this market?
There are dozens of smart agriculture offerings on the market due to the diversity of agricultural applications smart technology poses. (No we are not getting paid to talk about any of these)
My friend and fellow aquapioneer Rob Torcellini is the inventor of TrackMyPlants, a great system (that we use) to track system planting in aquaponics systems.
CoolFarm is a great app based platform that allows hydroponic growers to control their nutrient dosing.
I also recently found the Field-Ready Bee from Apitronics, a really open-source sensor-network system that was funded on Kickstarter.
There stand to be dozens of offerings on the market over the next few years as smart agriculture really starts to take off.
The Potential of Smart Agriculture in the Future
The potential for smart agriculture is to totally disrupt how we grow and distribute food. As aquapioneers, it is our opportunity to do this disrupting. When farming becomes as easy as checking a thermostat, anyone can grow food for themselves and their community. What will the world look like when every home is a farm? How will our supply chains adapt to meet this? Will an “Uber of Food” disrupt our supply chains like Uber itself has disrupted the transportation industry?
Only the future will tell the answers to these questions, and as Abraham Lincoln and countless others have said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Readers like you are the aquapioneers who are making the innovations and strides forward towards the future of food.
But what we definitely do know is that technology in this sector is advancing rapidly. The benefit of this is that more people can now start to approach farming without any prior experiences. In addition, because of these technologies, we are now able to control even more factors and conditions on our farms. This allows us to set up farms in more places, with more efficiency and control. Opening up new farmers and new places to farm is crucial to our goal of creating a repeatable model for the City that Feeds ItselfTM. Smart Agriculture will have a big part in making that vision a reality. Integrating these advanced technologies as they become affordable and practical will be key to creating a sustainable and repeatable model that anyone can participate in, no matter their skill level. That is the real benefit of these new technologies and that is what has us so excited about them.
Next time, we’ll be continuing our journey down the rabbit hole of exponential technology and aquaponics. Specifically, we’ll be covering online learning platforms and the strides being made in creating a distributed knowledge-base for best practices, strategies, and tactics in aquaponics.
It is easier than ever to learn anything online, but the amount of bad information makes it hard to know the good from the bad. We’ll tackle this problem next month. Till then, keep growing to your fullest potential!