What’s the Best Way to Help Precision Agriculture?

The FCC is going to take a fresh look at the $9 billion 5G fund this month and it sounds like the grant program will get delayed again while the FCC figures out where to deploy the money. The fund idea has been roiled in controversy since the beginning when it became clear that the big cellular companies were providing false data about existing cellular coverage.

Buried inside this fund is $1 billion in grants intended to help precision farming. Precision farming needs bandwidth, and apparently, the FCC has decided that the bandwidth should be cellular. I was frankly surprised to see such a specific earmark. The current FCC and administration have clearly climbed on the 5G bandwagon, but it seems premature to me to assume that cellular will be the winning technology for precision agriculture.

This funding means that the cellular companies will get a free, or highly subsidized network and will then be able to bill farmers for providing the bandwidth needed for smart tractors and for the millions of field sensors that the industry predicts will be deployed to monitor crops and livestock.

This all sounds great and shows that the government is working to help solve one of our biggest broadband needs. But it also means that the FCC hopes to hand the agribusiness revenue stream to cellular companies. This feels to me like another victory for the cellular lobbyists – their companies get free government handouts that will lead to lucrative long-term monopoly revenue streams.

If the FCC was doing its job right, we’d be seeing a far different approach. There are multiple wireless technologies that can be leveraged for smart agriculture.

  • Cellular technology is an option, but it’s not necessarily the best technology to cover big swaths of farmland. The coverage area around a cell tower is only a few miles and it requires a huge number of rural cell sites to provide universal cellular broadband coverage in farming areas.
  • Another option is LoRaWAN, a technology that is perfect for providing small bandwidth to huge numbers of sensors over a large area. This technology was discussed in a recent blog talking about the deployment of a LoRaWAN blimp in Indiana.
  • By default, early farm sensors are using WiFi, which is something farms can implement locally, at least in barns and close to farm buildings.

All these technologies require broadband backhaul, and this could be provided by fiber or satellites. If the 5G grants and the current RDOF grants are spent wisely there will be fiber built deeply into farming counties. Satellite broadband could fill in for the most remote farms.

Ideally, the FCC would be considering the above technologies and any others that could help agribusiness. Agriculture is our largest industry and it seems callous to stuff money to solve the problem inside an FCC grant program that might not even be awarded for several years and that then will allow for six more years to build the networks – that would push solutions out for at least a decade into the future.

Instead, the FCC should be establishing a smart farming grant program to see what could be done now for this vital sector of our economy. The FCC should be funding experimental test trials to understand the pros and cons of using cellular, WiFi, satellite, or LoRaWAN bandwidth to talk to farm devices. The results of such trials would then be used to fund a farming broadband grant program that would deploy farm broadband in an expeditious manner – a lot sooner than a decade from now.

The FCC should not be automatically awarding money to cellular companies to control the budding smart farming industry. If we took the time to look at this scientifically, we’d find out which technology is the most suitable and sustainable. For example, one of the driving factors in creating smart farming is going to be the power needs for sensors using the different wireless technologies. It may turn out that the best solution is cellular – but we don’t know that. But that’s not going to stop the FCC from marching forward with $1 billion in grants without ever having looked hard at the issue. This sounds like just another giveaway to the big carriers to me.

Farms Need Broadband Today

I recently saw a presentation by Professor Nicholas Uilk of South Dakota State University. He is the head of the first bachelor degree program in the country for Precision Agriculture. That program does just what the name suggests – they are teaching budding farmers how to use technology in farming to increase crop yields – and those technologies depend upon broadband.

Precision agriculture is investigating many different aspects of farming. Consider the following:

  • There has been a lot of progress creating self-driving farm implements. These machines have been tested for a few years, but there are not a lot of farmers yet willing to set machines loose in the field without a driver in the cab. But the industry is heading towards the day when driverless farming will be an easily achievable reality.
  • Smart devices have moved past tractors and now include things like automated planters, fertilizer spreaders, manure applicators, lime applicators, and tillage machines.
  • The most data-intensive farming need is the creation of real-time variable rate maps of fields. Farmers can use smart tractors or drones to measure and map important variables that can affect a current crop like the relative amounts of key nutrients, moisture content, and the amount of organic matter in the soil. This mapping creates massive data files that are sent off-farm. Experts agronomists review the data and prepare a detailed plan to get the best yields from each part of the field. The problem farms have today is promptly getting the data to and from the experts. Without fast broadband, the time required to get these files to and from the experts renders the data unusable if the crop grows too large to allow machines to make the suggested changes.
  • Farmers are measuring yields as they harvest so they can record exactly which parts of their fields produced the best results.
  • SDSU is working with manufacturers to develop and test soil sensors that could wirelessly transmit real-time data on pH, soil moisture, soil temperature, and transpiration. These sensors are too expensive today to be practical – but the cost of sensors should drop over time.
  • Research is being done to create low-cost sensors that can measure the health of individual plants.
  • Using sensors for livestock is the most technologically advanced area and there are now dairy farms that measure almost everything imaginable about every milking cow. The sensors for monitoring pigs, chickens, and other food animals are also advanced.
  • The smart farm today measures an immense amount of data on all aspects of running the business. This includes gathering data for non-crop parts of the business such as the performance of vehicles, buildings, and employees. The envisioned future is that sensors will be able to sense a problem in equipment and a send a replacement part before a working machine fails.
  • One of the more interesting trends in farming is to record and report on every aspect of the food chain. When the whole country stopped eating romaine last year because of contamination at one farm, the industry has started to develop a process where each step of the production of crops is recorded, with the goal to report the history of food to the consumer. In the not-too-distant future, a consumer will be able to scan a package of lettuce and know where the crop was grown, how it was grown (organic) when it was picked, shipped and brought to the store. This all requires creating a blockchain with an immutable history of each crop, from farm to store.

The common thread of all of these developments in precision agriculture is the need for good broadband. Professor Uilk says that transmitting the detailed map scans for crop fields realistically requires 100 Mbps upload to get the files to and from the experts in a timely exchange. That means fiber to the farm.

A lot of the other applications require reliable wireless connections around the farm, and that implies a much better use of rural spectrum. Today the big cellular carriers buy the rights to most spectrum and then let it lie fallow in rural areas. We need to find a way to bring spectrum to the farm to take advantage of measuring sensors everywhere and for directing self-driving farm equipment.

Farmers and Big Data

johndeereoutsideProbably the biggest change coming soon to crop farming is precision agriculture. This applies GPS and sensors to monitor field conditions like water, soil, nutrients, weeds, etc. to optimize the application of water, pesticides, and fertilizers in order to maximize the crop yields in different parts of the farm. Anybody who has ever farmed knows that fields are not uniform in nature and that the various factors that produce the best crops differ even within one field.

Precision agriculture is needed if we are to feed the growing world population, which is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. As a planet we will need to get the best possible yield out of each field and farm. This might all have to happen against a back drop of climate change which is playing havoc with local weather conditions.

A number of farmers have started the process of gathering the raw data needed to understand their own farms and conditions. Farmers know the best and worst sections of their fields, but they do not understand the subtle differences between all of the acreage. In the past farmers haven’t known the specific yield differences between the various microcosms within their farm. But they are now able to gather the facts needed to know their land better. It’s a classic big data application that will recommend specific treatments for different parts of a field by sifting through and making sense of the large numbers of monitor readings.

In order to maximize precision agriculture new automated farm machinery will be needed to selectively treat different parts of the fields. The large farm equipment manufacturers expect that farming will be the first major application for drones of all types. They are developing both wheeled vehicles and aerial drone systems that can water or treat sections of the fields as needed.

This is a major challenge because farming has historically been a somewhat low technology business. While farms have employed expensive equipment, the thinking part of the business was always the responsibility of each farmer, and the farmers with the best knowledge and experience would typically out-produce their neighbors. But monitoring can level the playing field and dramatically increase yields for everybody.

There are several hurdles in implementing precision agriculture. First is access to the capital needed to buy the monitors and the equipment used to selectively treat fields. This need for capital is clearly going to favor large farms over small ones and will be yet one more factor leading to the consolidation of small farms into larger enterprises.

But the second need is broadband. Gathering all of the needed data, analyzing it, and turning it into workable solutions presupposes the ability to get data from the fields and sent to a supercomputer somewhere for analysis. And that process needs broadband. A farmer who is still stuck with dial-up or satellite broadband access is not going to have the bandwidth needed to properly gather and crunch the large amount of data needed to find the best solutions.

This doesn’t necessitate fiber to the fields because a lot of the data gathering can be done wirelessly. But it does require that farms are fed with high-speed Internet access and good wireless coverage, something that does require rural fiber. I published a blog a few weeks ago that outlined the availability of broadband on farms and it is not currently a pretty picture. Far too many farms are still stuck with dial-up, satellite, or very slow rural DSL.

Some farmers are lucky to live in areas where communications co-ops and rural telcos are bringing them good broadband, but most are in areas where there is neither broadband nor anybody currently planning on expanding broadband. At some point the need for farming broadband will percolate up as a national priority. Meanwhile, in every rural place I visit, the farmers are at the forefront of those asking for better broadband.