HomeAutonomous VehiclesHow robot tractors and a private network came together at a smart vineyard

How robot tractors and a private network came together at a smart vineyard

Three technology partners, one private network and robot tractors: At a U.S. smart vineyard, these were the seeds of success for a precision agriculture use case.

Intel, Federated Wireless and Blue White Robotics discussed the partnership and the particulars during a session of the recent Private Networks Forum. When it comes to private cellular working for industry verticals, says Caroline Chan, VP and GM of the 5G infrastructure division’s network platform group for Intel, “It’s not just a terminology change, it’s actually a mindset, a skill set and a solution-mix change as well.”

She continues: “If you look at Industry 4.0, a lot of the transformation is taking place because people are looking from automation to autonomy,” she added. “It’s not just about automating the workflow, it’s about taking the data to be able to analyze and use it to drive automation in … the factory floor.” Cellular private networks, she added, also will have to co-exist with technologies already in use, whether that is Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. “It’s not about one replacing the other,” Chan said. “This is not a technology conversation, it’s about solving business problems. We are not here to make the TCO worse, we are here to improve efficiency and the TCO.”

She said that supply chain constraints, scarcity of food in some places, labor shortages, increased focus on sustainability are driving the interest in decision-making autonomy that is pushing verticals to adopt cellular.

In the case of the vineyard, it was a location with zero connectivity, explained Blue White Robotics founder and CEO Ben Alfi. Blue White, based in Israel, has put together an after-market robotic system that can be installed on any tractor, and operate with any permanent crop, he said, along with a software platform that enables control of a fleet of robot tractors equipped with sensors, cameras and more that can generate real-time data from the fields. The private network solved the problem of bring able to operate the vehicles remotely, collect and transmit the data, Alfi said — and the partners worked together quickly, he added, going from ideation to capability in less than half a year.

Federated Wireless set up a 5G-capable CBRS private network that has a radius of nearly 2 miles at the site, , according to Chris Swan, chief commercial officer of Federated, with Intel equipment supporting the deployment.

The key step was defining the use case, Swan said, and the partners had to consider what IoT devices were being connected (tractors, cameras, hand-held devices) as well as how they had to communicate out to other places, including the farm’s back-office area, where there were edge compute resources, and what had to be processed in the cloud. Other considerations included what that applications were, the goals of the project, return on investment and total cost of ownership.

“These are all important factors in trying to get this right, and the most important element at the beginning, is defining that use case down to that level,” he said. In terms of actually deploying the network, he went on, Federated had to take time to understand the topology of the vineyard and what the radio frequency design should take into account to get the right coverage and performance, as well as look at other local use of RF and potential objects that could block RF signals in order to plan optimal placement for the radios. Security, privacy, internet backhaul and monitoring and management also can come into play, he said, but in the case of networks-as-a-service, the end customer gets to hand many of those off to Federated.

The three partners came together through Intel’s 5G Open Innovation Lab, and this use case illustrates how in private networks, “the ecosystem building becomes ever more important than before,” Chain said. Intel, she added, “can’t just say, ‘Here’s a reference design.’ We need to come in with much more than that”, including different types of AI and enabling software and equipment, as well as being the “trusted advisor” that brings partners together. “I really think this blueprint can be repeated in other verticals and in other partnerships as well,” Chan adds.

Alfi says that Blue White has provided customers with set-ups that include anywhere from 20 vehicles, plus 50 IoT devices and another 40 implements, to more than 600 vehicles. Farming operations often have large revenues but very low margins, he says, so up-front investment needs to be low and the after-market robot kit has “reduced a lot of the entry problems.” Customers, he added, want “a one-stop shop that gives the whole solution” rather than piecing things together themselves. Swan notes that a private cellular network, once deployed, also offers scalability for many additional devices to be added and controlled through the same system, and, as their tech partners continue to innovate, farmers can add potentially add even more new technology at better cost-points over time.

In terms of TCO, Swan said, one of the factors in the U.S., at least, that takes cost out of the overall equation is the availability of CBRS. General Authorized Access (GAA) use of the spectrum doesn’t require a spectrum license or leasing, although such arrangements could be made depending on the enterprise’s preference. That’s a big factor in return on investment, he says.

But Swan adds that he often sees companies that want to “solve everything all at once. I think that’s overshooting. … What I’m seeing people that are really successful do is, they pick a simple, very valuable use case … that save money and returns ROI on the peopel side. money. Pick that use case and get started. Don’t try to cover everything all at once. … Once you define the total solution … you kind of weave it back in to a supplier that will work with [you], or an ecosystem, a team that comes together who will partner on that ROI, that outcome, not just sell you a network connection. That’s the last thing people need,” he says. “They really need someone who’s going to be responsible. In this case, Intel, Blue White and Federated Wireless, all came together to make that happen.”

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