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Making the 5G precision agriculture connection

The emerging technology known as precision agriculture is ushering in a much-needed paradigm shift in farming and ranching practices that promises many competitive advantages, including maximizing resources, optimizing crop and livestock yields, cutting costs, and preserving the environment. Many experts believe that precision agriculture holds the key to satisfying America’s growing demand for food and resources like corn for ethanol; and ultimately, helping to alleviate global food insecurity through smarter, automated farm management.

But, realizing precision agriculture’s true potential depends heavily, if not entirely, on having dependable access to the high network speeds, ultra-low latency, and broadband that 5G wireless connectivity provides at a lower cost per bit than previously possible. This is because 5G networking is the infrastructure that enables smarter data communications between farm management systems and edge computing of Internet of Things (IoT) devices—such as drones, sensors, robots, and autonomous vehicles—that gather and transmit data to physical- and cloud-based facilities.

This data is then analyzed and used to keep the processes running optimally and to improve outcomes for farmers, ranchers, and the entire food supply chain. These tech-forward farm devices also require 5G’s high-speed, ultra-low latency connections to autonomously perform tasks at scale that would otherwise require manual labor. 

Alleviating the rural digital divide

As a leading vendor and authority in the wireless telecommunications industry, Ericsson is in a unique position to help alleviate the key stumbling blocks impeding access to mobile connectivity and widespread adoption of precision agriculture. Learn more on Closing the American Digital Divide this decade.

The problem is that in America’s heartlands, where our nation’s agricultural efforts are centered, less than half of these rural communities have broadband internet access, let alone high-speed 5G wireless service, and progress to remedy the situation has been slow. As a result of this digital divide, rural communities have been negatively impacted in many ways, including a lack of tele-health, remote work opportunities, and online workforce training. The agricultural community also suffers decreased productivity, such as food spoilage, which can be mitigated with the help of 5G-powered precision agriculture. 

In this blog, we’ll discuss the many ways that Ericsson is actively working to remedy the pressing need for readily accessible 5G wireless network connectivity, especially in our nation’s underserved rural and agricultural communities.

In practical terms, Ericsson has also been contributing its best-in-class 5G networking products—including 5G antennas, radios, enclosures, and other site equipment—to two of the four test beds being conducted by the Platform for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program to accelerate research on wireless communications and networking technologies. PAWR and its research test beds are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), along with a consortium of industry partners.

To proactively solve the rural connectivity challenge and encourage precision agriculture, NSF’s PAWR Project Office manages USD 100 million in public/private partnership funds to deploy and manage up to four city-scale research testbeds, including ARA in Central Iowa and AER-PAW in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. The funds will be invested over the next seven years to build specialized wireless networks for U.S. researchers to test new ways of increasing wireless speed and capacity, to prepare the next-generation workforce for new job opportunities and ensure U.S. leadership in wireless communications. 

The Iowa and NC test beds are relying on equipment and expertise from Ericsson to build complete, end-to-end, private 5G wireless networks to enable the experimentation, research, and development necessary to promote broader 5G accessibility and support for innovative 5G use cases like precision agriculture.

What does precision agriculture look like?

Powered by high-speed 5G connectivity, precision agriculture enables IoT and robotic devices to perform a wide array of time-and labor-intensive farming and ranching activities in real-time, around the clock, even in harsh conditions. Here are some of the ways that IT-driven devices and equipment interoperability can cost-effectively boost productivity, food security, and traceability through the supply chain, among other benefits, often with little to no human involvement:

  • Unmanned tractors can autonomously plow rows and rows of farmland using GPS and computer vision for guidance
  • Harvesters and offloading systems can use sensors and machine-to-machine communications to cost-efficiently manage farm operations and share data about the volume of crops being harvested
  • Devices can gather, track and share key metrics from the field about conditions like soil health, pests, and crop quality so that remote staff can modify equipment settings and processes to optimize productivity
  • Autonomous ground robots can autonomously regulate how and when dairy cows move to and from automated milking machines
  • Leveraging machine learning, robots can perform a variety of tasks, such as bruise-free picking and harvesting, and identifying and measuring the ripeness of fruit to minimize fruit decay and spoilage.
  • Drones and autonomous driving vehicles can perform tasks that are difficult, dangerous, or impossible for workers to do safely

Without 5G wireless networks, this technology can’t be employed efficiently, if at all, because data must be moved by slower means, such as driving it to an office many miles away or uploading it at slower speeds. Productivity is also hampered because automated solutions that depend on the internet and GPS can’t be leveraged.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr remarked at the Precision Ag Connectivity Task Force Meeting in March 2021, “Tractors and combines are effectively mini data centers. [With] high-res imagery technology and other ways we collect data, there are 18 Gb of data that can be pulled from an individual plant. So, the average corn field has about 28 times the amount of data as the Library of Congress. [That’s a] massive amount of data, and here is potential to turn that into value, more efficient production, and saving resources. But it must be moved into the cloud where it can be crunched and analyzed.”

“That is the real challenge,” Commissioner Carr continued, “So, when we think about technology and agriculture, we often think about low data rate sensors, devices and applications, but we also need to remember about the large data files that need to be transferred. It is critical for the future of agriculture and the economy to prioritize the delivery [of] high-speed internet everywhere to support all of America’s producers.”

Ericsson agrees that the solution calls for broader access to 5G wireless networks, enabling upload and download speeds fast enough to transmit massive amounts of data to and from farm equipment and IoT devices to the cloud for real-time data capture, analysis, insight, and actionability. 5G connectivity and speed are also needed to enhance the well-being of the skilled farming workforce and local, rural communities that need better access to services like remote healthcare, distance learning, and training.

The Ericsson PAWR partnership

As a wireless living lab for smart and connected rural communities, the PAWR program known as ARA received USD 8 million in NSF funding to expand rural broadband, lower deployment costs, and boost economic competitiveness across rural communities.

Led by a team from Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa, ARA’s goal is to blanket over 600 square miles in Central Iowa with a 5G wireless network that connects six rural communities. ARA also strives to give those in rural, agricultural communities, such as farms, schools, public service agencies, and healthcare facilities, the means to improve their daily lives. As an ARA partner, Ericsson has been contributing ultra-low latency, stand-alone 5G equipment, services, talent and expertise to this test bed.

Ericsson has also contributed a complete, customized 4G/5G Radio Access Network (RAN) to the North Carolina-based PAWR program AERPAW, which focuses its research on the convergence of wireless 5G technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). Autonomous vehicles equipped with 5G technology can stream real-time images and videos from farms, which can help in identifying and eliminating weeds and plant diseases.

UAVs and UGVs can also be used as “data mules” that can pull data by getting into closer proximity of the sensors deployed in the field, and hence significantly improve the coverage when compared to IoT gateways that may be further away from the sensors. Such sensors may at times get deployed under the soil and/or be shadowed by foliage and growing crops. So, flying a UAV over the sensors would make it possible to fetch any data that would otherwise be inaccessible due to poor link quality.

In addition to the benefits that come from 5G connectivity, precision agriculture benefits greatly from autonomous device mobility and remote area accessibility, both on the ground and aerially, often with non-visual line of sight (NVLoS) connectivity. AERPAW 5G- equipped and autonomous UAVs/UAGs are deployed in a rural agriculture farm area and are therefore well positioned to carry out futuristic experiments and research related to precision agriculture.

Gearing up for the 5G future

In summary, the importance of 5G goes beyond precision agriculture in that it also enables innovative services, such telemedicine, which can greatly benefit rural areas where hospitals are few and far between. In fact, three-quarters of the U.S. is classified as rural and underserved in terms of broadband to support remote work, telemedicine, and online education. Today, affordable, accessible broadband is as essential a utility as electricity and water.

In doing this work with the FCC task force and PAWR testbeds, Ericsson benefits by being on the cutting edge of solving the digital divide of 5G wireless deployment across rural areas and gaining insights into precision agriculture, one of many 5G uses cases that will likely predominate and shape America’s future.