Ubiquitous Connectivity for Agriculture

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Our food system is facing unprecedented challenges. From population increase to climate change, demands on productivity to environmental protection – these pressures will place further strain on agricultural value chains and influence the market forces which shape food production. The current consumer trends are at odds with the globalisation of food production and, as a result, new solutions are required to address these challenges.

Multiple and integrated digital technologies provide the speed, accuracy and autonomy required to enable such solutions. However, drawing upon multiple and vast data sources, these technologies require connectivity which is fit for purpose at a reach and scale capable of meeting the demands placed on our food system.

Rural areas within the UK are often characterised with poor connectivity and inconsistent mobile network services. As a result, the adoption of novel technologies on farms can be limited. Uniting terrestrial and satellite networks will ensure ubiquitous coverage for digital technologies and transform agricultural productivity.

This article, a collaboration between the Catapult’s agriculture and connectivity experts and rural network provider Wessex Internet, explores the various digital technologies requiring connectivity on farms. We look at the benefits and challenges to these solutions, as well as what the farm of the future could look like if ubiquitous connectivity is available on farms across the UK.

Technology & Use Cases

The implementation of ubiquitous connectivity on farm has the potential to increase farm productivity, improve efficiencies and reduce costs and make the entire UK food sector have less impact on the environment. What’s more, with seamless coverage across every element of the agricultural supply chain, real value can be added using innovative mechanisms such as:

  • IoT Sensors – Sensors on the ground can enable farmers to collect useful data about field conditions, temperatures, machinery status, crop health and more. Being able to correlate this data allows farmers to build valuable insights they need from the data to make more informed decisions.
  • Satellite Data – Imagery, connectivity and locational data, enabled through satellites, provide a wealth of data to the farmer. However, the data is of little value unless it is able to be shared, analysed and understood by the end user in order to maximise the value back to the farmer.
  • Drones – Drones can complement data sets from satellites, providing more detailed, local information for precision agriculture. Being able to transfer data from the field can greatly enhance operations from camera to action, reducing the cost of flying drones.
  • Robots – Small robots, relying on being continually connected to the internet to perform as instructed by the farmer, could be utilised to revolutionise the way crops are grown, with the ability to manage entire fields of crops and perform vital tasks on farmland, such as weeding, spraying and drilling. Replacing large machinery, such as tractors, with small robots would reduce soil compaction, fuel and labour.
  • Automation – The potential of automation on farms is vast: robotics, logistics and field operations could all see fuel, labour and cost savings. The requirements to enable automation – not least due to safety – require significant connectivity requirements.
  • Livestock Monitoring – Tags fitted to livestock and cameras monitoring the herd will enable farmers to examine the welfare of their livestock, receiving real time updates on movement, health and local environmental conditions. This could help reduce long term illness, improve cattle welfare and reduce vet call out costs.
  • Communication – 5G can provide a low-cost solution to connect all the farms in one area. In regions where operators have not yet deployed 5G networks, the use of satellite communications, or its combination with other networks, can provide the required coverage and connectivity. The number of players in the satellite sector providing these services are increasing and reaching new markets. Airtime plans for different types of data rates are also becoming available, reducing the cost of accessing new types of technology.
  • Emergency devices – Safety on farm is critical and the health and safety record for agricultural incidents is a significant area of focus for rural communities across the UK. Emergency call devices could be installed in farming vehicles and carried by farmers for the purpose of seeking help in an emergency. These can be triggered either manually or automatically and use the connectivity and locational services from satellites to save lives across rural communities.

Benefits to the Agricultural Sector  

A combination of all this technology will transform the way data is collected on farms, enabling farmers to manage their crops better and allow them to share insights with other farmers and businesses across the supply chain.

With the data, farmers can improve crop yields, reduce operating costs, and increase productivity. This will, in turn, help add value to and create a more efficient food supply chain.

Under the new Agriculture Bill, which was passed into UK law on 11th November 2020, farmers and land managers across England will be rewarded with “public money for public goods” such as better air quality, thriving wildlife, soil health or measures to reduce flooding and tackle the effects of climate change – of which some of the above technology examples could support with.

Whilst many of the solutions will be suitable for larger farms, there are some – such as new types of low-power, low-cost IoT devices, 5G-enabled cameras or affordable satellite communications plans – which will be accessible for most farms. These advances could reduce operational costs and introduce more options to scale solutions for businesses of all sizes across the supply chain.     

Challenges Faced

A lack of consistent and capable connectivity across farms is not the only challenge faced within the UK food system. Other challenges across supply chains limit the uptake of new technology:

  • Data Silos – The UK food sector is complex and the data that is generated by farms and other entities within the supply chain is often held in silos. This adds a further barrier to access data and realise the benefits of sharing data between supply chain stakeholders.
  • Fragmentation – Farm size, varying management techniques and the move towards specialised produces has all contributed to a fragmented food system within the UK. This contributes to the challenges around widespread adoption and implementation of new technologies.
  • Scepticism –The UK food sector is dominated by grocery retail and global brands. Whilst this has many benefits, the power dynamics are often unbalanced and scepticism within farming is high, particularly towards new ‘solutions’ or products and services from claiming to solve all of the problem. Projects such as the 5G RuralDorset Project demonstrate the opportunities that new solutions can offer in real-world settings, and involves farmers from the outset to work through any concerns they may have around adopting new technologies and novel solutions.
  • Security – The sheer quantity of data being created and shared means there is a responsibility to ensure that the data is stored and accessed in a secure way that farmers and entities across the supply chain understand and trust.
  • Value – To ensure that technology is widely adopted across the supply chain, it must provide value to the end user. The business case and incentives to invest must be created to maximise the right technology adoption in the right areas. Working closely with farmers on an individual basis to understand the requirements of the farm will ensure the right solution is implemented to generate returns.
  • Ecosystem – Connectivity in rural areas needs to be improved to facilitate widespread adoption of these technologies. For this to happen, collaboration between industry and network providers is key to provide a truly valuable solution to farmers which is reliable, trusted, secure and delivers value.

The Farm of the Future

There are a wide range of views about what the farm of the future could look like and how our food will be produced in the years ahead. Enhanced connectivity across every element of the supply chain, from farm to the consumer will be fundamental to ensuring food is produced in a productive, environmentally-friendly and cost effective manner.  

Internet of Things sensors and high-throughput devices, such as UHD cameras, will be key to this farm of the future, but we can only realise the potential of this technology through 5G connectivity. This will deliver a wealth of new information to farmers, allowing them to make better, informed decisions across their business whilst enabling increases in productivity alongside improving the farm environment. Through 5G, as new technologies, products and services develop, the accessibility and affordability also improves, allowing UK farmers collectively to address some of the grand challenges the food system is facing.

“Networks provide the fundamental basis to growth as ideas come together. The poor connectivity experienced in rural areas now provides the basis for a revolution. Agriculture is an industry which is perfectly positioned thanks to experimental agri-tech companies to boom – the vision is impressive. However, to be able to deliver this new era of agriculture, it is essential that connectivity companies and rural industry come together to deliver a solution which works.” – Digby Sowerby, Wessex Internet.

More Information

If your organisation is looking for the opportunity to engage with or benefit from ubiquitous connectivity in the agricultural sector, get in touch with us on 01235 428 199 or email info@sa.catapult.org.uk.

This article has been written in collaboration with Wessex Internet, a partner with us on the 5G RuralDorset project. Find out more by visiting the websites below:

5G RuralDorset – www.5gruraldorset.org

Wessex Internet – www.wessexinternet.com