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Internet of Things:
IoT platforms create value in connectivity

This article appears in the issue March 2017 (100 Companies) [Volume 26, Issue 3]
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Although the Internet of Things (IoT) is early stages of the maturity curve, more than 70 percent of enterprises are already collecting information for IoT initiatives, according to a study conducted by 451 Research. Companies that had launched IoT projects expected their IoT spending to grow 33 percent on average over the next 12 months. The respondents in the study were IT buyers from about 1,000 organizations worldwide.

The IoT market includes three major components: physical products, service providers and software companies. The full platform stack includes applications, analytics, storage platforms, middleware and communications. The IoT is, in fact, a complex ecosystem of products and services.

“In its forecast for 2016, Gartner expected spending on IoT services to reach $235 billion, an increase of 22 percent over 2015. The market, it predicted, would be fueled by the 6.4 billion connected things expected to be used globally in 2016, which is an increase of 30 percent over 2015. But future growth will be even greater, with 20.8 billion things in use by 2020.

The installed base will initially be dominated by consumer IoT connections, at least in terms of number. Commercial connections, including both generic and industry-specific, will account for only about half as many connections as the consumer market. However, given the potential value of the IoT to businesses that range from utilities to insurance and medical applications, those markets are likely to ultimately exceed consumer markets in dollars.

So the connected devices are here and the spending is taking place, but what is happening to the data? The data that comes from the sensors, devices and equipment needs to be captured, stored and analyzed for it to be useful. Numerous IoT platforms have emerged as a means of doing that; a report from IoT Analytics estimates that the current market includes 360 different IoT platforms. It predicts that the worldwide market for IoT platforms will grow from $298 million in 2015 to $1.6 billion by 2021. Although that figure is relatively small compared to the spending on services, the report notes that platforms are “one of the fastest growing segments,” with a projected growth rate of 33 percent.

Leafy green initiative

Freight Farms was founded as a startup in 2010 with the goal of supporting local food production on a global scale using a controlled environment. After experimenting with rooftop greenhouses and finding them to be an uneconomical business model, the company shifted to using repurposed insulated shipping containers and created a prototype hydroponic facility. The protected environment controlled variables such as light, water, air quality and nutrients. Impervious to threats of insect infestations and changes in weather, the Leafy Green Machines (LGM), as the containers are called, provide an optimized environment that results in high-yield, high-quality vegetables. The product began shipping in 2013 and Freight Farms now has more than 100 units in place in the United States, the Caribbean islands and Europe.

“We selected leafy vegetables as target crops because they can be grown in a small space and they do not ship well, so local production is a big advantage,” says Kyle Seaman, director of farm technology at Freight Farms. “The intent was to make urban agriculture feasible and provide fresh vegetables to restaurants and stores in the area.” The shipping container is delivered as a turnkey product, with all the equipment needed for hydroponic farming, including irrigation, growing containers and 10 different sensors.

Initially, sensors connected to the Internet monitored the critical components, but farmers could not adjust the environment remotely. Freight Farms developed an in-house program to manage two-way data transmission, but technical issues such as security led the company to explore sourcing that capability externally, to focus on its core competencies of developing the LGM and providing farming expertise to its customers.

The IoT platform

After investigating a number of possible solutions, Freight Farms decided on Xively, an Internet of Things (IoT) platform from LogMeIn Inc.. Convinced that the company had the required knowledge to support its present needs and future growth and that the platform had the features it wanted, Freight Farms made the transition to Xively at the end of 2015.

Real-time feedback about the status of each component in the growing environment allows for correction of any deviation from the intended parameters. Xively stores data in the cloud and provides Freight Farms with analyses of data.

“Analytics provide an understanding of how the facility is being used and insight for Freight Farms into how to improve its system,” says Seaman. “Our customers understand that their data will be shared with that of other customers, which improves the overall production process for everyone.”

Along with the LGM, Freight Farms provides “recipes” to its farmers for growth of crops including a variety of types of lettuce, kale, mustard greens, basil and other herbs. “Our customers do not need to be experienced farmers to be successful,” Seaman explains. “Many have never farmed. Another group of customers consists of institutions that want to grow food for their own use.”

Freight Farms has several different types of customers—direct farmers, learning environments and institutional customers. Green Line Growers in Boston and Acre in a Box in Houston, for example, are independent farmers who have set up businesses in urban areas. Square Roots in Brooklyn is an urban farming accelerator program that is training 10 entrepreneurs on how to build small businesses using the LGM. Stony Brook, part of the New York state university system, also is a customer. “Like many institutions, they are trying to fulfill commitments to source their food locally, but that can be a challenge in urban areas,” Seaman says. “Freight Farms provides the opportunity to achieve that.”

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