Smart farming and precision agriculture incorporate technology to make farm to market more efficient and productive. Smart agriculture — known as ag-tech — uses IoT sensors to connect everything from irrigation systems to soil and animal production. As 5G rolls out worldwide, this high-bandwidth cellular technology is poised to make an impact on ag-tech.
Ag-tech seeks to maximize food production by empowering farmers with the data they need for good business decisions. Connected ag-tech solutions help farms:
- Reduce resource consumption (e.g., water, grain, fertilizer, pesticides)
- Minimize runoff and soil erosion
- Add efficiency into overall operations and product distribution
One example is Clover, a hydroponic farm based in Bangalore, India. Clover uses wireless sensors to monitor plant growth in its greenhouses. Aggregating data from many locations allows them to improve growth protocols, yielding healthier plants and a plentiful harvest.
From orchards to cattle ranching, farms are utilizing IoT solutions to monitor multiple drivers affecting their bottom line, including:
- Soil conditions
- Water quality
Fixed and mobile applications may require cellular IoT connectivity to enable remote data collection and equipment management. These capabilities are similar to a manufacturing setting in which the entire process can be monitored.
Today, some smart farming endpoints depend on short-range wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Others use cellular due to distances and RF coverage needs.
5G will enable new applications and augment or replace short-range ones. An example is the use of video-equipped drones to monitor crop conditions and livestock health.
The Future of 5G and Smart Farming: The Next 10 Years
The early stages of 5G have focused on enabling high-bandwidth connectivity. Before 5G infrastructure becomes more ubiquitous, centralized farms will be the most practical use cases. A large corporate farming operation might build a private 5G network to enable high-bandwidth use cases (e.g., crop monitoring using drones) and aggregation of data from thousands of transactional or triggered IoT sensors.
For now, 5G will be most leveraged when a farming operation utilizes large amounts of data from disparate sources. On an industrial chicken farm, data from thermostats and feeding machines come to a central connection point. Each of these thousands of sensors generates small data amounts for too little cost or complexity for a broadband-grade 5G data pipe. When aggregated in properly dimensioned clusters, the resulting bandwidth can align with 5G mobile broadband bandwidth. 5G is an excellent solution to aggregate and backhaul this information.
We can expect 5G 3GPP Release (Rel) 17 to empower massive IoT in three to five years. Rel 17 will enable developers to leverage the standard for low-power devices operating on the 5G New Radio (NR) radio access network (RAN). When this happens, data aggregation over short-range radio technologies can be mitigated since low-cost, low-power sensors can operate on low-power 5G NR modems.
Over the next five to 10 years, lower LTE categories (i.e., NB-IoT and LTE-M) will play a leading role in connectivity options for remote agricultural sensors. As the technology evolves, power needs and costs will drop, enabling new designs and concepts for remote agricultural sensors. As 5G standards develop, the end-to-end ability to bridge technologies will become more seamless.
Use Cases of 5G for Farming and Agriculture
Here are some potential present and future 5G use cases in smart farming technology:
5G technology holds great promise for centralized data aggregation in large farming operations. A sizable corporate farm could build a private 5G network to aggregate data from micro-monitored crop management systems. These systems include soil moisture sensor density, possibly hundreds of times denser than what available technologies support. This network can enable a more efficient real-time monitoring system with triggers for throttling irrigation and other crop support systems.
As 5G technology enables data aggregation, large industrial farms can better incorporate predictive analytics. Considering past and present data on conditions (e.g., soil moisture and pesticide use), analytics software creates models and predictions to help farmers make decisions. As 5G enables denser real-time data, analytics will become more precise, maximizing farm production and efficiency.
More farmers are using drones to monitor their crops. Drones are less costly than driving tractors through fields and provide more targeted information about crop damage and other variables. As a high-bandwidth technology, 5G will enable drones to collect higher-quality video data and convey it faster. This high-speed data transmission capability will enable AI drone technology development and real-time reports.
Animal Tracking and Monitoring
Until Rel 17 increases feasibility for 5G low-power and denser sensor networks, animal monitoring sensors will likely stay connected via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or LTE LPWAN. One exception is in large centralized farms where 5G infrastructure can be built over a small area (e.g., a chicken farm) and track individual animals. Ag-tech developers have created herd management sensors, including smart collars and ear tags, to track an animal’s location and health.
Autonomous Agricultural Vehicles
Developing autonomous vehicle technology in other sectors will translate to farm implements. Already, tractors with onboard computers allow operators to control minute farming task details (e.g., the distance between seed rows and pressure exerted on them as they’re planted in the ground). Driverless farm equipment will improve to provide more flexibility and efficiency for farmers and save on labor costs.
Trucks for crop transportation can reap IoT sensor benefits as well. These sensors can track cargo temperature and send alerts if it becomes too warm or cold (i.e., cold chain). Small mobile sensors such as asset trackers will likely continue to use high-latency technologies like LPWAN. 5G will enable autonomous vehicles with more powerful onboard computers to send and receive larger, ultralow-latency data streams, including video.
Farming operations are at the weather’s mercy. Farmers can lose large crop portions to preventable diseases and damage. Connected weather stations in the field can solve this dilemma, providing farmers with field condition data.
One example is the InField monitoring system, developed by AMA Instruments. InField measures soil humidity and texture, air temperature, wind speed, and sun exposure. Deployed in remote fields, weather stations will likely continue to utilize LPWAN connectivity for the immediate future. They will benefit from 5G, as it will create more data-dense observation and edge computing.
As the cellular-connected world transitions to 5G, smart farming will continue to expand. Data and predictive analytics will enable farmers to make choices yielding more productivity and efficiency. The global results will be sustainable farming practices equipped to feed growing populations.