Five examples of how IoT is supporting the food supply chain

As the Internet of Things (IoT) gets underway, previously ‘dumb’ devices (irons, dumbbells, cups – yes, really) are becoming digitally intelligent. While the consumer market struggles to find uses for the technology, the manufacturing industry looks set to enter a ‘fourth industrial revolution’, with factories becoming early adopters of IoT to gain a competitive edge over their rivals.

In the food sector, the data from IoT, once analysed, can be used to provide insights into food contamination, levels of pest infestations and hygiene compliance standards.

Here are five examples of how IoT is supporting the food supply chain.

1. Monitoring crops using drones

Drones are already being used to check on how the crops look to the human eye when they are damaged by storms or pests. However,  drones could potentially be fitted with hyperspectral systems in which in-built cameras would be able to ‘see’ across a broader range of wavelengths to gauge the health of crops by looking at how their leaves appear through infrared.

Drones will also be able to deliver highly targeted fertilisers and weed killers to limit the damage their overuse could do to crops and soil.  Drones could also be used to deploy pest monitoring and treatment systems, particularly on large farms.

2: Auditing logistical progress of food items

While transporting foodstuffs from the farm to the destination, the items can be tagged using simple scannable barcodes, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, or fully active near field communication (NFC) tags. The food items can be logged at the pallet, sack, box or individual level. The data associated with the tags identifies the type of foodstuff, the farm of origin and any other data mandated by local, regional or global laws and customer requirements.

As the tagged items move from farm storage through to logistics, the type and amount can be automatically verified, ensuring that a complete audit trail of handling is created and maintained along the food supply chain.

Temperature, humidity and gas levels of the vehicles can all be continuously monitored via cameras or satellite devices. When they reach the logistics centre, the applied tags can be compared to the central manifest to verify that the items have been transported safely.

3: Advanced automation in the warehousing sector

In warehouses, with the help of automation, foodstuffs can be stored in discrete, specific zones to minimise waste through poor handling, pest infestations and environmental factors. Specialised systems – such as, ultrasonic systems, or randomly-moving robots triggered by IoT sensors – could then monitor these zones for any pest control and hygiene issues.

Hyperspectral scanning can continuously check the health of the food items as these pass through the system, by looking at chlorophyll levels, any signs of bruising or rotting and any gases emitted due to early-stage crop damage and ageing. This serves as an early warning system and can ultimately help businesses save money because they would be aware of any issues identified.

4: Tracking contamination in the food processing sector

As well as tracking the health of the foodstuffs themselves, the health and hygiene of employees working on the processing line are a major issue. Temperature-monitoring (including wearables) matched with facial recognition and other biometric identification factors could be picked up by IoT devices to detect employee sickness early and limit the spread of viruses and bacteria. This would reduce the cost of sickness leave, but would raise concerns about data privacy.

In the food processing plant itself, hyperspectral scanning can pick up where bacteria and viruses are already present, automatically triggering the use of ultraviolet lamps and wands to treat any surfaces and to help prevent airborne cross-contamination. The foodstuffs that have been detected as contaminated can then either be treated, or removed from the processing line entirely. This will help to reduce the risks and costs of product recalls and save brand reputation.

5: Optimising planting, harvesting and storage

One of the biggest ways IoT can assist farming is by collecting and sharing data to resolve issues in planting, harvesting and storing crops. In-field testing, using IoT devices and near-infrared spectroscopy, has proved to be easier and more accurate than manual methods, resulting in stronger crops that are planted and harvested at the optimum moment. This results in less waste and cost savings.

Also on the horizon is a range of small, autonomous IoT devices that can be mixed with grain in silos by connecting sensors to software that helps farmers monitor grain health – without having to be present on-site. This can give farmers and the food supply chain a fuller, accurate overview of crop health.

IoT looks promising for the future of the global food supply chain

With time, the effectiveness of the above examples of IoT applications will become clearer. With some applications, there are important considerations to be factored in, such as data privacy and employee participation. However, if the technology is deployed correctly, businesses across the food supply chain could benefit in terms of saving time, resources and costs overall.

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Jack Lyons

I joined the Marketing and Innovation team at Rentokil in 2015, and my mind has quickly become accustomed to the weird and wonderful world of pests. Outside of work my main hobby is music, being a huge fan of bands such as Queen and Led Zeppelin as well as being an avid drummer.

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