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Safety and Automation in the world of Farm & Food 4.0

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Food is the backbones of living, and in the continuing onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, food stability and security has never been more shaky.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 according to UN and every mouth demands to be fed. According to the Global Report on Food Crises 2020 (GRFC) facilitated by the Food Security Information Network (FSIN), there were already 135 million people facing acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 and above) in 2019, with 17 million of them being children aged 5 and younger.

With the pandemic ravaging the entire 2020 and beyond, Arif Husain, chief economist, World Food Program (a United Nations Agency) estimated 265 million people “could be pushed to the brink of starvation by year’s end“.

Besides politics and conflicts, climate and environment conditions can have bearing on food and farming. Many of the climate and environmental challenges can be surmounted with technology to empower food producers.

Moving farming and food production to 4.0
Farming and food production can benefit from many of the technological advances in Industry 4.0 too, in the area of safety automation and crisis aversion, AI/ML, robotics and smart equipment. Advancements in sensor technology and IT have led to an increase in farming efficiency and productivity, resulting in a movement towards “precision farming”.

Rather than a person or an animal plouging the field, powered smart farming equipment, such as autonomous driving tractors, drones for sprays and surveillance, autonomous or robotic harvesters, automated hydration systems, and even automated seeders. These technologies can process a farming real estate and assets efficiently and with a smaller crew. In the early 90s, GPS was installed in tractors, and eventually, GPS-assisted steering became widespread, reducing time spent in the field and economize plowing, tilling, sowing, and fertilizing efforts.

20 years ago, a farmer would work tirelessly all day in the field. Now driver-less tractors can safely perform the work for farmers with greater precision. In fully autonomous tractors, on-board equipment consists of speed and motion sensors, GPRS, a CAN bus electrical system, and lasers. These lasers detect obstacles (even as small as a stone) and the tractor will react by stopping or maneuvering around them.

Farm operators have also turned to drones to speed up fertilization and crop inventory management, monitoring for infestation or disease, analyzing the field, and checking irrigation.

Safety from farm to plate

Automation is fast becoming a trend that runs through the entire farm to food supply chain. Subsegments of agriculture – like the dairy, ready-to-eat, and beverage industries – encompass automation that can alleviate operating costs and improve productivity. This is also where safety and security come in.

Safety is a fundamental aspect of agriculture as well as the factory production of food and beverage. The most common safety functions found in these industries are emergency shutdown systems, door interlocking, and turbomachinery control. In the age of what we’re calling “Farm and Food 4.0”, companies can take advantage of big data analysis and smart sensor technologies to able to detect inconsistencies in automation systems and make the necessary adjustments near or real-time.

For example, in turbomachinery (turbines and compressors), there can be inherent risks when they face irregularities in the transfer of energy between rotors, fluids and compressors. Such irregularities can cause fluctuations in processes, or worse, breakdowns. In some critical systems, such breakdowns can even cause danger to humans in the vicinity. Therefore, there must be smart sensors that can alert and mediate such fluctuations before they become critical, and thereby assuring optimal production and alleviate safety risks.

Cybersecurity from the inside
In the age of cybersecurity, the very same automation from farms to plants would also increasingly demand safety controls and cybersecurity safeguards. This would ensure a safer, more manageable, and more sustainable food supply chain to reduce pitfalls and shortages in the food safety and security lifecycle.

On the legislative front, the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) smart farming standards for the agricultural industry span the entire supply chain from farm to plate, covering tools and technology standards, standards on soil quality, irrigation, and food safety management. 

Farms are not exempted from cybercrime. They may be susceptible from simple “pharming” (phishing attacks) to more sophisticated data theft. Food production plants have become more complex and networked, and are prime candidates for safety-related automation systems to protect hardware, operating systems, networking, and engineering systems from cyber-attacks. 

Such safety-related automation systems can benefit from a “cybersecurity from the inside” paradigm where cybersecurity can be effected from the core of systems, rather than simply protecting the periphery with the “firewall” paradigm. For example, “Safety Systems on Chip (SSoC)” would be a good approach, where security and safety are built into a microprocessor chip, which in turn is the core of safety systems that protect industrial systems in farming and food production from external hacks. 

Future-proofing farms and food plants

Industry 4.0 is all about increasing productivity and performance while optimizing resources and labor. The 4.0 revolution for farms and food plants are no different. Two of the most critical elements we will face today in the food and farm sector, will be safety and security. By ensuring safety and security, this sector can more confidently tend to the business of optimization and production, and in turn, feeding the world. 

Article contributed by Friedhelm Best, Vice President Asia Pacific, HIMA