The Internet of Farm Things

The U.K. government is funding a research project in Wales that could help farmers reduce their environmental impacts, while also providing them with visibility into the health of their livestock.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 25, 2015

Gordon Blair, a professor of computing at Lancaster University, has a keen interest in how distributed data-collection systems can be used to better understand ecosystem functions, and to mitigate environmental harm. So, when the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)—a science and technology research arm of the United Kingdom's government, similar to the National Science Foundation in the United States—put out a call for proposals for researching the applicability of distributed, sensor-based communication systems within the natural (as opposed to urban) environment, it was music to Blair's ears.

"I'm very interested in environmental challenges," Blair explains, "and my skills are in distributed systems technology, which can help environmental scientists make sense of environmental systems." In the EPSRC's request for proposal, he saw "an opportunity to work on [the] IoT in the natural environment—because everyone else is working on [IoT solutions in] smart cities."

Gordon Blair
EPSRC awarded Blair a $265,000 grant to deploy an IoT system in a rural environment, in order to assess its efficacy in monitoring the health of livestock, as well as that of the landscape and riparian environment. Blair then assembled a team of data and environmental scientists from Lancaster University, the United Kingdom's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the British Geological Survey and Bangor University. The 18-month project began in December 2014.

A number of news reports have focused on one common element of the landscape in Conwy, Wales, where the experiment will take place: sheep. Numerous headlines have reported that the project's goal is to turn the animals into Wi-Fi hotspots by outfitting them with "digital collars." But that is hardly the point of the project, Blair explains. For one thing, he says, sheep would make lousy hotspots, since they move while grazing and tend to cluster in groups. Beyond that, the aim of the project is not just to establish sensor and communication networks within a rural setting, but also to use those technologies to better understand that setting and its biological systems—including sheep.

"What we're trying to do is measure a range of things, and the sheep are just one of those things," Blair says. "We're looking at water systems, soil, animals, pollution and how they all interact with each other."

These factors are important to the health of the landscape, the livestock and the humans who rely on that particular watershed. Conwy, where the project is being deployed, is within the watershed of Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. The landscape between Snowdon's summit and the Irish Sea harbors 17 different vegetation zones, with a range of rich soils types, all within an area of 30 to 40 miles. "It's a very rich range of ecosystems," Blair states.

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