Connecting agriculture: LoRa, NB-IoT, LTE, and 5G – once and future kings of smart farming (part 3)
As we have heard, the UK’s 5G RuralFirst project is trying to do with 5G (or 5G-related tech) what the telecoms industry has failed to do with previous generations, and connect the unconnected, including farming communities looking for a digital edge.
It is transformative work, potentially, and part of a disuptive narrative (which also considers private and shared networks) that is being weaved across muliple industry sectors as new 5G systems emerge.
The clamour for advanced LTE and incoming 5G technologies, even in out-of-reach rural locales, is undeniable. Investor NGP Capital reckons a 4G/5G network, enabling high-end camera analytics, is an entry-level requirement for “full-stack yield optimisation”.
The Brazilian arm of Telecom Italia, TIM Brasil has joined with various agri-tech firms to bring connectivity, automation, and intelligence to 93 per cent of Brazilian farmers, which remain un-served by wireless broadband coverage.
The initiative, called ConectarAGRO, will make use of 4G/LTE and 5G products from Nokia, as well as satellite and microwave technologies, to enable 500,000 farms to connect machinery, deploy robots and sensors, and engage precision mapping.
US agricultural equipment manufacturer AGCO Corporation is involved in the project. “Rural broadband is a global issue. Countries like Australia, Brazil, and the US all struggle with with connectivity on farms,” says Jonathan Riley, product marketing manager at Fuse, AGCO’s smart farming division.
He makes clear the case of high-bandwidth cellular, home on the range. “With more new machines having LTE and 5G capabilities, now and in the future, entire fleets will be able to communicate, data can be transferred in real-time, and advanced capabilities can be developed. We’re connecting the entire operation through innovative solutions in order to capitalise the land more effectively and efficiently.”
John Deere is loading its top-of-the-line planters, sprayers, and harvesters with LTE for rapid-fire cloud transfers, alongside some edge-compute for on-the-fly analytics.
“Yes, sure, all those guys have LTE and Wi-Fi solutions. The problem is you’re not taking that combine back to the barn every night – it stays in the field for weeks, until it is cold. It impacts the fresness of that data,” comments Pete DeNagy at Internet of Things America.
In practical terms, the farmers and farming companies making the running with digital transformation today are buoyed by LPWA techologies, and not high-end LTE and 5G cellular networks.
Harriet Sumnall, research analyst at ABI Research, comments: “LPWA networking is most suited for this market… Farmers don’t have time to chase cows to change batteries in their collars because of a high power connectivity option.”
She references the Cisco study. “There have been pilots of 5G being used to connect livestock, but the higher 5G frequencies will create significantly higher costs for solution providers. It is highly likely to be seen as unbeneficial for this sector,” she says.
For farmers, looking to conquer their fields in new ways, LPWA is the king-making tech. It is the only one, presently, that is arming the agriculture community, in hill country and flat lands, in every market, with the kind of digital weaponry to fight these twin battles around population growth and climate change.
Senet, for its part, set up in 2009 to address automated monitoring of propane tanks in residential markets. It claims the largest public LoRaWAN network in the US, and has moved into farming, among other industries.
“Many technologies are valuable for agriculture, [including] the extreme precision LTE and 5G can bring… But LoRaWAN supports the broadest number of use cases and may be the most useful data collection technology to feed analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics and automation,” says Bruce Chatterly, chief executive at Senet.
Senet has found a niche for LPWA solutions to monitor water usage. Irrigated agriculture accounts for the largest share of water consumption in the US, according to the Department of Agriculture. Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of freshwater; 70 per cent of ‘blue water’ withdrawals from watercourses and groundwater are for agricultural usage, three times more than 50 years ago, according to the UN.
Senet has enabled the digital plumbing for Dutch soil-sensor maker Sensoterra to connect soil probes for orchestrating irrigation systems. It is also connecting new irrigation pipes (‘drip tapes’), which allow for “conservation” of as much as 90 per cent of irrigation water, it claims, compared with traditional flood and sprinkler systems.
Even Vodafone ackowledges farming is an LPWA sector, in effect. Like Chrissos at Cisco, Phil Skipper, in charge of IoT development at Vodafone, makes clear 5G’s broader remit: LTE-M and NB-IoT will be subsumed into the Release 16 specification of 5G NR as part of the mMTC group, he says. But they work already as able servants in the agricultural kingdom on LTE networks.
“LTE-M and NB-IoT fit into the same regulatory envelope as 5G,” says Skipper.
“But you’ll find a lot of that type of sensing lives off NB-IoT – just because plants don’t grow very fast. When you get into control applications – like advanced ventilation for poultry, and advanced vertical manufacturing – then 5G has a role. But agriculture will mostly exist on LPWA services.”
This is a serialised excerpt from a new editorial report from Enterprise IoT Insights, called Connecting Agriculture – the promise of smart farming and the challenge of connectivity’, which looks at development of IoT technologies in the farming and agricultural sectors. The full report, free to download, can be found here.