The GSMA, in its report Mobilising the Internet of Things, estimates that smart agriculture is the second biggest IoT opportunity, in terms of revenue potential for mobile operators, after smart buildings [[i]]. It clearly has a lot to offer farmers too. Certainly much has been written about how wireless technology could benefit countries in the developing world where there is room – and need – for the sort of efficiencies the IoT – and specifically the 5G IoT – could bring to farming communities.
Indeed such changes as foreseeing weather changes, assessing fluctuations in demand for certain products and tracking milk yields and animal movements are often associated with emerging economies, but they apply to the UK too, as a number of recent on ongoing projects show.
Innovate UK, the government-backed agency that funds business and research collaborations to accelerate innovation and drive business investment into research and development, supports no fewer than four smart agriculture initiatives [[ii]], and there have been a rising number of projects in this area. For instance, back in 2015, researchers from Lancaster University began attaching wireless collars with a range of 5km to sheep in North Wales to track and predict their movements, and regulate the pollution hazards large flocks present for rivers.
Meanwhile, one of the six newly announced 5G projects funded by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is the 5G Rural Integrated Testbed (5GRIT), led by Quickline Communications, which will trial 5G in rural applications including smart agriculture and tourism, using shared spectrum in the TV bands.
And some farmers are already using cellular IoT technology for real-world applications such as optimising fertiliser levels or assessing crop yields, using data gathered by sensors in soil or on farm machinery.
Unlike some IoT applications, which operate over localized areas and mainly use Wi-Fi or short-range wireless connections, farming is, by its nature, a wide area activity which lends itself to cellular communications. In the short term, low power wide area network (LPWAN) technologies like NB-IoT or LoRa can support some of the services, but 5G will enable a wider range of options, especially those requiring low latency or critical response, and is also expected to be integrated tightly with AI/ML engines for big data analytics.
However, there are obstacles in the way of making the UK a nation of smart farmers. According to AgriSmart, the organization which supports innovation among UK farmers, this industry needs a regulatory framework as badly as other sectors which are going through digital transformation. It says: “The UK Government has tried to ensure that there is a regulatory framework in place for other ‘smart’ industries – for example, smart metering. Considerations such as customer privacy, data ownership and sharing of data for other purposes are as relevant to the agricultural sector and smart farming as to the electricity industry. It has been found that farmers are reluctant to share data collected on their farms and so trust needs to be established between the farmers and those analysing and using the data collected” [[iii]].
The GSMA, perhaps, puts it best: “Governments and regulators can unlock the consumer and business benefits of the IoT by implementing policies that promote innovation and investment, and by creating regulatory frameworks that build trust and network capability. This will give confidence to consumers and the industry that will drive adoption of the IoT.”
5G IoT could certainly be an opportunity for operators, farmers, and many others for whom it offers use cases unfeasible until recently. It will also be an opportunity – and a challenge – for Real Wireless as demand for our work accelerates. We fully expect to be doing even more in the near future to advise operators, vendors and regulators on 5G timing, choices and investments to keep up with opportunities – down on the farm and in many other industries.