Connecting to our farming future

Author: David Lamb, Precision Agriculture Research Group, University of New England | Date: 27 Feb 2018

Take home messages

The progression of telecommunications and technology must be accompanied by education and extension. A recent survey identified that more than 60% of Australian farmers did not know of on-farm connectivity options or who to talk to about getting connected. And ‘connectivity is king’. Lack of connectivity is identified as one of THE constraints to adopting tools that improve productivity, safety and workflow. There are many challenges and opportunities of getting connected into a SMART farming future that, in 5-10 years, will just be farming. Farmers need to understand the basics of how connectivity works to be able to make informed decisions when getting connected. Government, policy makers and telco providers need to understand what farmers need and why.

Introduction

The role of the internet in agriculture is fast approaching a ‘third wave.’ The first wave was connecting people to data via the World Wide Web (1990s); the second wave was about connecting people to people e.g. through Facebook and Twitter (2000s). The third wave will connect people to ‘things’ (2010 onwards). These waves are not specific to agriculture. Developments in the agricultural field are contained within and mirror wider technological progressions that have led us to a place where every part of our lives relies on an internet connection.

In terms of on-farm developments, advances in wireless sensor networks coupled with in-situ, low-cost machine, crop, animal and asset sensors; the so-called ‘internet of things’ means our farms and fields will become sources of high-quality, real-time management data. Big data is really made up of lots of small data, and will become increasingly useful in day-to-day and long-term management decisions. Some of this data will be utilised alongside intelligent and autonomous systems operating both on ground and in the air.

The SMART Farm

I lead the University of New England’s SMART Farm project (Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies Farm). UNE has transformed a 2,900 ha, predominantly sheep farm into a SMART Farm which showcases the latest technologies aimed at improving productivity, environmental sustainability, safety, workflow and social/business support networks on Australian farms (UNE SMART Farm website, 2018). Buts is a CONNECTED farm; linked via AARNet and the national broadband network (fibre, terrestrial wireless AND satellite) because the predominantly grazing SMART Farm is a national demonstrator site.

Examples of the types of sensors we use include 100 soil moisture probes, which create a living map of soil moisture. The farm also has another telemetry network that allows devices to be ‘plug-and-played’ ranging from monitoring water use in trees, pasture growth through to honey accumulation in beehives.

We are also working with livestock tracking and are investigating opportunities around developing fingerprints of animal behaviour ranging from when they’re attacked, if they’re calving, whether they have internal parasites and also how much pasture is left behind from grazing.

Live satellite derived pasture data is available through the Pastures from SpaceTM program. This provides estimates of pasture production during the growing season by means of remote sensing. Satellite data is used to accurately and quantitatively estimate pasture biomass or feed on offer, or combined with climate and soil data is used to produce estimates of pasture growth rate (Pastures From Space website).

The SMART Farm is just an example of what the future of farming will look like- buts it’s connected to the hilt. In order for that future to be realised across 137,000 Australian farms, action is required in the telecommunications sector.

Telecommunications

As well as sensor technology and big data, telecommunications is a key enabling part of the SMART Farming future. In 2016, the Commonwealth Department on Agriculture and Water Resources initiated a Rural R&D for Profit Research Project entitled ‘Accelerating Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture’ or ‘P2D’.  One of the aims the project was to deliver ‘recommendations for data communications to improve decision making - or decision agriculture’; effectively to undertake a ‘telecommunications review’ for agriculture. During the period of August 2016 – June 2017, a series of eight workshops, numerous phone interviews and site visitations around Australia sought to understand the current status of on-farm telecommunications at the farm level in support of a big data future for agriculture. This review sought a ‘producer-eye’ view, seeking to understand the dimensions of key enabling telecommunications utilised by producers, factors constraining the uptake or adoption of available enabling technologies, as well as investigating the future telecommunications needs and opportunities. Information was solicited from not only producers, but also developers and providers of technologies and data services, as well as looking at the developments ‘top-down’ such as the ACCC Inquiry into Domestic Mobile Roaming and the Productivity Commission Review of the Universal Services Obligation (USO).

In the last couple of years the notion of telecommunications as a ‘critical infrastructure’ for rural and regional Australia, and in particular in agriculture, has at last well and truly taken root. Over this period there has also been a significant increase in the development of end-to-end telecommunications technologies and services offered to producers. These so-called ‘second-tier’ telecommunications providers (as distinct from the ‘big telcos’), also offer their own transmission backhaul capability and in some cases associated cloud based services. Moreover they seek to ‘guarantee’ speeds. Second tier providers will help extend the value and potential of existing NBN and mobile telecommunication networks. The role of telecommunications in supporting a big data future in agriculture is not necessarily technology constrained; if a farm has access to the mobile network somewhere on the farm, or NBN into the farm house then there is invariably technology available to beam it to where it is needed. But the external connectivity MUST be stable 24/7. There is little value having high speed internet for only short periods of the day. If this is the case, as it often is, then at least we should be able to know IN ADVANCE when that will be so we can work to get the best out of it. Reliability is as important as absolute speed, and speed is different from signal ‘strength’ or ‘reception’. The other real constraint is around service and price. Entirely new innovative methods of extending connectivity over remote regions are in the R&D pipeline; some are even surfacing now. Others have been around for some time and overlooked. It is time to visit or revisit them. Business models are evolving, and need to evolve further to support the types of connectivity functionality that farmers need.

The on-farm telecommunications market is rapidly evolving but like with all things in precision agriculture, education is one of the biggest challenges faced by both those looking for solutions and those offering solutions. Industry needs well-curated case studies and education/educators must target not only consumers of telecommunications services but also technology developers and service providers seeking to put something in the market place.

Conclusion

The progression of telecommunications and technology must be accompanied by education and extension. A recent survey identified that more that 60% of Australian farmers did not know of on-farm connectivity options or who to talk to about getting connected. There are many challenges and opportunities of getting connected into the SMART farming future that, in 5-10 years, will just be farming.

Acknowledgements

The project that delivered the ‘telecommunications review’ referred to in this presentation was led by Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC). The ‘P2D’ project was jointly funded by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Rural Research and Development (R&D) for Profit Program and all 15 rural Research and Development Corporations including the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC). A copy of the full report “A review of on-farm telecommunications challenges and opportunities in supporting a digital agriculture future for Australia” (ISBN 978-921597-75-6 Electronic) is available for free download on the Australian Farm Institute website.

Contact details

David Lamb
Precision Agriculture Research Group, University of New England
Armidale, NSW, 2351
Email: dlamb@une.edu.au