IOT-enabled farming can reduce costs, enhance yields

This is Malaysia's first vanilla smart farm. It is in Penang which does not have as much land as Sarawak.

This first of two articles on precision farming takes a look at a chilli farm in Selangor where a smart farming application is being used to monitor the entire cultivation process.

KUALA LUMPUR: At first glance, the 0.8-hectare site in Kampung Sijangkang in Telok Panglima Garang, Selangor, where red chillis planted in black polybags can be seen neatly arranged in rows, looks like an ordinary vegetable farm.  

But it is far from a conventional farm. It is actually a “digital laboratory farm” where digital agriculture or precision farming practices are used to increase crop yields and profitability, as well as reduce fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide inputs.

Pewaris Bumi Hijau (M) Sdn Bhd managing director Norhashim Kamisan, who operates the farm, is making use of an Internet of Things (IoT) smart farming application and system developed by Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC).

Norhashim, who has been involved in agriculture for 14 years, admitted that it was not easy for him to switch from conventional to digital farming applications but now he is convinced of its benefits.

His “digital laboratory farm”, where some 6,000 red chilli plants are being cultivated using the fertigation technique, has now entered its third year of operation. The smart farming application has helped him save time and manpower costs, and improved harvests.

“Anyone, even in rural areas, can practice smart farming as long as they have a smartphone and Internet access,” he told Bernama, adding, “All they need to do is insert a SIM card in the sensor hub panel and monitor the cultivation process via their smartphone.” 

IoT-based smart farming, also known as precision farming, helps farmers to optimise water, fertiliser and pesticide inputs and improve crop yield, quality and productivity by monitoring various factors such as humidity, temperature, soil conditions and fertiliser and pesticide levels on their farms or agricultural fields in real time with the help of sensors and interconnectivity.

Effective

Norhashim got his digital laboratory farm project going by applying the smart farming application on the fertilisation system first. Its success spurred him to extend the application to pest control for which he used an automatic spraying system comprising a 137.16-meter-long railing.

“We found this system effective and went on to integrate both the fertilisation and pesticide spraying systems which we controlled via the IoT application,” he said, adding that the smart farming concept can benefit young agropreneurs involved in fertigation cultivations in terms of their farms’ maintenance, watering, fertilisation and pesticide application aspects.

He said with the use of emerging technologies such as satellites, drones, artificial intelligence and weather forecast software, farmers can determine crop types that are appropriate for cultivation on their land. This will avoid wastage and save time.

“Even though I’m still experimenting with this (smart farming) system, I’m proud to say that it has helped me to save time and manpower costs and has given me better yields too,” he added.

Norhashim said the IoT smart farming application, which can be downloaded on both Android and iOS smartphones, provides farm-related data that have nearly 100 percent accuracy.

Among the data recorded by the sensors are readings pertaining to the volume of fertiliser or pesticide in the tanks, status of the irrigation pumps, humidity level and temperature, crop growth timeline, type of crop, date of cultivation and automatic harvesting and crop yield record.     

Norhashim’s farm has 15 sensors and all the data collected from the field is stored in a cloud computing system.

“Data from the 15 sensors are sent to the cloud every 15 minutes. If we need to get any information pertaining to, for example, fertiliser, pesticide, temperature or humidity level, we just have to print out the required data from the list.

“We can also download data from individual sensors. And, now we are developing a system to allow us to access all the data via email in view of the fact that it is quite time-consuming for us to download data from the cloud especially when there is too much data,” he said. 

Technological collaborations with MDEC have also enabled them to activate the sensor control panel via voice commands, he added.  

Source of income

According to Norhashim, the use of IoT in agriculture is seen as the fastest way to increase the number of vegetable and fruit farms in this country, which can also serve as a source of income or an avenue to learn new skills for those who have lost their jobs. 

He said in view of the current high demand for agricultural produce such as chillies, ginger, cucumber and rock melon, scientific intervention and technology are essential to speed up the cultivation, fertiliser and pesticide application, harvesting and marketing processes.

“With the use of IoT, we can reduce manpower costs as well as wastage due to carelessness. Most importantly, we can monitor our farms from wherever we are, as long as we have WiFi or Internet data.

“For example, we will receive a notification via SMS, Telegram or email if the weather gets too hot and the crops are not getting enough water. There are settings that allow us to activate the automatic plant watering system to enable the soil to achieve the correct level of moisture – we just have to monitor our farms through the (IoT smart farming) application,” he explained.   

Norhashim said he has been able to make some savings on his fertiliser and pesticide costs since he started using the application. For example, his fertiliser cost of RM430 can now stretch over seven days instead of only three days before he switched to smart farming practices.

He also expects the use of smart farming technology to widen over the next two to three years.

On how much it would cost to implement smart farming practices,  Norhashim said for a 0.4-ha plot, it will cost about RM10,000 to RM15,000 to buy and install the necessary sensors and equipment.

Currently, there are 15 farms in Kedah, Johor, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan that use the smart agriculture system. Smart farming is suitable for farms where crops are cultivated using the fertigation technique. It is also suitable for application in farms that cultivate vegetables hydroponically.

2021 Budget initiatives

Meanwhile, Budget 2021 has proposed seven main initiatives for the agriculture sector, which contributed 7.1 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2019.

Among them is the e-Satellite Farm programme for which RM10 million will be allocated in the form of matching grants of up to RM30,000 for each Area Farmers’ Organisation for the purpose of buying IoT-based agriculture gadgets such as drones and artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

 “We hope that with this allocation, AI technology to control insect attacks can be used by 2021,” said Norhashim, adding that his company and MDEC also intend to develop technology that uses cameras to analyse insects found in farms.

“The data collected will help us to create a biological control mechanism that is safer, cheaper and more efficient to implement.”

Believing that the budget allocations will help to create more technologically-savvy farmers, he said smart farming is becoming a necessity now as the demand for food is going up daily while farm sizes are not increasing.

Citing ginger and chillies as examples, he said their production was much lower than the market demand and hoped that more farmers would use smart farming techniques to increase the production of these crops to meet the needs of the nation. – Bernama