Sticking your hands into a patch of fertile earth seems worlds away from tapping a smartphone, but the Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing the two closer together. Fresh food production is a giant growth area for IoT and it’s starting to make an impact in fields, processing plants, and your kitchen.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 9.6 billion people are predicted to inhabit this planet by 2050, and food production is expected to increase by 70% during the same period. To help facilitate this, the food tech sector found over $1 billion in investment to combat faster food production at a lesser environmental impact.
These are daunting numbers. But the rise of new smart machines and IoT-enabled devices—think agrobots, self-driving vehicles, squat robots, and sensors—that can monitor growth, harvest crops, plant seedlings, and even transplant roses indicates how IoT will increase efficiencies around fresh food production.
In Japan, plant physiologist and farmer Shigeharu Shimamura, has turned a former semiconductor factory into a lettuce kingdom with a little help from IoT. In a 25,000-square-foot space, his vertical farm can yield up to 10,000 heads of lettuce every day. This is 100 times more per square foot than traditional methods. It also uses 40% less power and 99% less water.
IoT tech helps monitor and regulate the indoor farm’s soil and air temperature, and humidity, while special General Electric LEDs emit light photosynthesis-conducive light. A similar project is now under construction in Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Russia, and mainland China tipped for future builds.
In the United States, IoT—in the form of in-field sensors—is being used at Hahn Family Wines in California to monitor the size of grapes, the health of vines, and the amount of sunshine. Smartphones display the analytics in real time so that optimum-growing conditions can be maintained. And in Boston, Green Line Growers are using refrigerated shipping containers to produce ‘vertical farms’ that use IoT tech to significantly reduce the environmental requirements of fresh, healthy food.
In Silicon Valley, an exciting startup called Impossible Food is on a mission to produce a plant-based burger indistinguishable from regular beef. Not only do they claim to produce one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat, it’s techy approach uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and produces 87% less greenhouse gases than a regular patty. It’s even being served by foodie superstar (and avid meat lover) David Chang in his NYC eatery, Momofuku Nishi.
Over to Italy, pasta maker Barilla has created ‘digital passports’ for each of its products to improve safety, communicate quality, and raise awareness about sustainable farming among consumers. Thanks to a partnership with tech company Cisco, Barilla put QR codes on packs that are plugged into a larger supply-chain so customers could trace the ingredients in their food, from where it was grown to how it arrived on the store shelf.
Fresh food security is also a huge focus for IoT. By tagging fresh food with sensors linked to a supply chain network, IoT could help stop the spread of food-borne illnesses. An outbreak of E. coli, for example, could be swiftly linked to a certain supplier via IoT-enabled devices and stopped in its tracks. Research and testing is currently underway in the US, Europe, and China, among other countries. Once enough data is collected and stored, machine learning could even be applied to predict where problems are likely to occur.
IoT in your kitchen
For many of us, however, the most exciting application of food-based IoT is at home.
In a move that’ll disturb fridge magnets everywhere, Samsung’s Family Hub fridge features a 21.5-inch screen on the door that allows family members to pin photos, leave notes and post calendar reminders from their smartphones. Cameras also monitor what’s in the fridge, and the photos can be accessed at the supermarket from a smartphone.
On the stovetop, Pantelligent is a frying pan that helps optimise cooking time thanks to inbuilt sensors. The pan talks directly to a smartphone app that monitors temperature and gives cooking instructions based on what’s sizzling. In the oven, Samsung’s WiFi-enabled range lets cooks monitor both a stovetop and oven remotely. This means preheating and adjusting oven cooking temperatures from both inside and outside the kitchen, plus the ability to check ‘if you’ve left the oven on’ from anywhere with WiFi.
During food prep, smart nutrition scales (such as the SITU app) weighs food in grams, nutrients, and calories. The smart scale speaks directly to an iPhone or iPad app, which displays the exact nutrition content of a meal on-screen. After eating, smart jars like those from SkeLabs use a combination of sensors and Bluetooth to monitor products stored in the pantry; they can track a jar’s contents, a product’s freshness, and even alert you when something’s running low.
Wine buffs are about to get much happier thanks to IoT-enabled devices like the Plum wine fridge, which, with the help of WiFi, cameras, a touchscreen, and a thermostat report exactly what wine’s chilling, then adjust to the optimum temperature for that varietal. Want to go deeper? Tap the screen to get info about the wine, winemaker, and even reviews.
Beer lovers have not been left out thanks to the PicoBrew Zymatic , which brings the brew house onto the kitchen bench. Ingredients are placed into a tray, and the brewing process is then monitored by smartphone. Cloud-hosted beer recipes are a tap away, and a linked “recipe crafter” app can even build new brews.
It’s early days yet, but one thing we know for sure is that our meals are about to get a whole lot smarter.
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