Using 5G to revolutionize farming

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In recent years, various industries have been exploring ways to drive digital transformation with 5G. Swiss telecom operator Sunrise has worked with the Swiss Agricultural Research Institute Agroscope and Huawei to explore 5G applications in agriculture. The experiences of this project and an outlook of possible future agricultural applications were presented by Dr. Thomas Anken, Head of Digital Production, Agroscope, Switzerland, at the online 5G+ Better World Summit.

Precision agriculture: Producing more while consuming less

5G offers great potential for agriculture. Many farms, whose access to fiber optics is too expensive, will get a broadband internet connection via 5G. Machines and installations in stables and on fields at any location can be integrated into a farm network. For example, a contractor can operate his own machinery fleet in a separate network, which makes the whole installation and maintenance of machinery vastly easier. The beauty of 5G is that machines stay connected in the farm network, even if they work out of the farm. A wide range of new technologies are being developed like irrigation control, weed regulation, cow sensors, and autonomous vehicles, all of which benefit from fast data transmission. These technologies will undoubtedly be important to make agricultural production more efficient and sustainable to address major current challenges.

In Agroscope's 5G smart farm, numerous sensors were deployed to collect real-time data on weather, air, soil parameters, crop growth, and animal behavior. For example, crops are monitored by means of drones equipped with multispectral sensors to analyze their nutrient status. This data is then merged with weather and other agronomical information to apply an optimal quantity of fertilizer. Two years of experiences have shown that it’s possible to decrease the amount of used nitrogen fertilizer by about 10 % without any yield loss.

Another application is the automation of irrigation. Soil sensors are measuring the amount of available water, and dendrometers are measuring the water stress of the plants. This technology has shown on several farms to reduce the amount of irrigation water by 30%. In this domain, 5G allows a simple and direct data transfer from the field to the server without any intermediate radio transmission.

Smart agriculture: Freeing up farmhands

There are two main ways to remove weeds: herbicide or hoeing. The former is bad for the environment, while the latter relies on people's ability to identify and operate. To solve this problem, hoes equipped with detection cameras automatically identify crops rows and stear the implement automatically.

5G-enabled drones in the near future will map weeds or pests to enable site-specific treatments. This will massively reduce the amount of needed plant protection products as they will be not applied on the whole surface but only on the single target plants. As high-resolution images are needed for such tasks. 5G opens the opportunity to create an efficient workflow. Images are directly streamed from the field on the server, where the data is processed and the result is returned to the treatment vehicle. Such a workflow has the big advantage that the usability for the farmer is very high as he doesn’t need to transfer or treat data.

Beside field applications, 5G has the potential to improve animal production too. On many farms, WLAN connection is an issue due to large distances. 5G will allow an easy connection of different machines like milking robots, feeding machines, sensors for measuring cows’ behavior, ventilation, and farm management systems.

This goes to show that 5G not only brings massive connectivity to agriculture but, more importantly, improves the effectiveness of farming. It allows many data sources to be merged in the cloud to better describe the actual status of ongoing natural processes. This is the foundation to optimize the agricultural production in the field as well as in the barn. As over 800 milking robots in Switzerland have shown, reduction of labor and an increased flexibility are reached by digitalizing agricultural production. This is seen as a start toward increased resource efficiency, less environmental pollution, better animal welfare, and reduced costs.

The key is to improve productivity

5G+ agriculture is not only applicable in the West, but also in China. In Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, China Telecom worked with partners to launch the Caocun-AIRICE Rural Complex Project, using modern technologies such as AI, big data, cloud computing, and 5G to build a “central nervous system” for farmland management. This is the first 5G+ smart agriculture project in Zhejiang, and it shows that 5G+ agriculture is fully up and running.

GSMA reports that 81 5G networks had been deployed in 42 countries and regions by the end of May 2020. Telecom operators and ICT vendors have been exploring how to fully unleash the potential of 5G applications in different industries. Based on the global application experience of 5G+ agriculture, supporting industry applications is indeed conducive for the commercial success of 5G. The key is to build a favorable ecosystem for 5G applications, including comprehensive technical solutions, mature devices, unified standards, and sustainable business models. Huawei and other telecom vendors have been developing innovative technologies and products to solve the industry's pain points. For example, the 5G Super Uplink solution meets the uplink requirements of many industries. More and more devices using 5G, such as industrial modules, cameras, industrial CPE, and industrial routers are tailored to meet the requirements of different industries.

Operators, telecom vendors, and stakeholders in other industries should work together to develop unified standards and business models for 5G applications. It may take a long time and be challenging, but it is a practical approach to improving productivity. We will succeed if we work together.

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