29 April, 2013 - 09:20 By News Desk

IoT could put cheaper food on the table

William Webb, CEO, Weightless SIG Cambridge

Humanity made an enormous leap forward when it was able to industrialise food production, freeing most of the population to work on other things.

This has served us well for 200 years, allowing enormous population growth and innovation. But in recent years we have seen rising commodity prices and shortages of some key crops caused both by the ever-growing demands and by the impact of climate change.

It is well understood that “precision agriculture” where seeds, fertilizers and irrigation is provided almost on a plant-by-plant basis rather than a whole field could help improve yields. And longer term climate change might be abated by reducing energy consumption and congestion.

At the heart of achieving all these, and more, is the concept of the Internet of Things. Simple, cheap sensors liberally scattered around our fields, homes and cities, linked to central processing units that can control irrigation or home heating systems.

That is the opportunity. But this opportunity has been discussed for at least a decade. The challenge is how to make it happen.

Sensors are widely available – the typically smart phone will have 5-10 embedded within it. But getting the signal from the sensor back to a processing point has proven more of a challenge.

Technologies like Zigbee were designed to address the smart agriculture need by enabling a mesh of connected sensors across a field, but it is struggling for traction.

Cellular does provide some IoT connectivity but is generally too expensive and has too short a battery life for most applications.

Even where wireless solutions can work, the complexities of managing a field full of devices with associated identity management and security keys can outweigh the potential benefits. This is where Weightless comes in.

As the name suggests this is a light-weight wireless solution optimised for IoT applications. It enables extremely low cost radio devices with battery life of up to 10 years which can be managed in a highly-automated manner.

It breaks new ground in many ways – as a global, royalty free standard, as one of the first technologies to be deployed in the newly available “white space” spectrum, and as the first network-based wireless solution to employ a cloud-hosted core network solution.

The iPhone was the last piece in the puzzle that unlocked mobile data. There is every reason to believe that Weightless will achieve the same for the IoT.

If food prices start falling in a few year’s time it might just be because of an innovative new wireless standard.

• Article written by William Webb, CEO, Weightless SIG Cambridge UK

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