With the mobile phone market close to saturation in North America, the next big opportunity is machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, such as smart meters for hydro, bridge toll devices and climate control technologies. My previous posts explored M2M opportunities for Canadian wireless companies in mining and manufacturing. My focus here is agriculture, where there are both opportunities and significant barriers.
There are about 230,000 farms in Canada according to Statistics Canada. Less than half of Canadian farms reported using computers for farm business in 2006. This is changing, but it reflects the barriers faced by companies offering M2M solutions.
Like many industries, the agriculture industry is under pressure to increase productivity in the face of rising costs and increasing international competition. Some would argue that digital technologies are incompatible with farming operations. They would point to traditions, valued relationships with animals, small farms and organic farming.
I disagree. There are many ways digital technologies can help improve productivity in farming. Greenhouse operations tend to adopt technologies faster than other segments. Climate control technology, a necessary component in greenhouses, is crucial to productivity.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on cattle are mandated by government for food safety requirements. This is an example of where the cost of M2M solutions is a moot point; it’s required by law.
RFID tags are also used with robotic milking machines. The RFID tags track each cow’s milk production and milking frequency. Robotics reduce labour costs and increase dairy output by about 10% in year one.
Automated planting and plowing assisted by GPS and tractor auto-pilot reap huge rewards including reduced costs for labour, fuel and nutrient application. Further wireless integration of farm vehicles with farm management software can integrate important factors such as tractor usage and crop yield information.
The aging Canadian farmer is a significant barrier to technology adoption. Only 9% of Canadian farmers are under the age of 35. The older demographic – and particularly farmers approaching retirement – are less likely to invest in new technologies. The cost of M2M solutions, lack of broadband coverage and resistance to risk are other barriers that must be overcome.
A number of Canadian companies are successfully providing M2M solutions in agriculture. This includes Argus Controls (automated control systems for greenhouses), CIMS Industries (RFID technology for farms) and Farm Works (integrated wireless farm management).
Join the Wavefront Community and read more in the Wavefront report: Digital Applications for Agricultural Productivity in BC.