Broadband may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of agriculture, but a John Deere heavy equipment executive argued that maybe it should be.
Nancy Post, director of John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group, said Fierce connectivity has long been an integral part of agriculture, noting that the satellite, in particular, has been used for at least 20 years to control tractors in fields in rural America. The industry is also using advanced iterations of cellular technology, using first 2G and then 3G and 4G to transmit and process data from a growing number of sensors aboard a wide range of agricultural vehicles, she said.
These days, an automotive system consisting of a single tractor with a 60-foot planter attached to the back has 300 sensors and about 140 controllers on board, Post said. And today, 3G and 4G connections are used to process 5 to 15 million sensor measurements from farm equipment every second, sending them to the John Deere Operations Center farm dashboard hosted in the Amazon Web Services cloud.
Post explained that the data from these machines is critical to getting more crops on limited tracts of arable land.
“The population is growing, and it’s growing pretty fast. As the population grows, of course, we need more feed to feed the animals and more crops to feed the people. And so we’re trying to get ahead of that so we don’t have crop shortages,” she said. “Our focus is on reducing costs and increasing production on the same piece of land.”
Data generated by sensors on farm machinery can help ensure that seeds are planted at the right depth, get the right amount of water, are positioned to receive the right amount of light, and are sprayed with the right amount of herbicides and pesticides. The sensors can also help reduce the amount of pesticide used, Post said, by allowing the machines to target weeds in the field and direct their spraying to a postage-stamp-sized area.
Research shows there is room for even more innovation. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report identifying that “many technologies in agriculture today are in the early stages of adoption, which suggests great potential economic benefits from increased access to connectivity to support these new applications.”
Post said the potential for farm sensors is currently limited by coverage limitations. Today, much of the data is collected and stored on board a vehicle until it reaches the connectivity area to transfer that information to the cloud. But a wider, faster connection-say, over 5G-could provide machine-to-machine connectivity that would allow farmers to work even faster and more efficiently.
“With better connectivity, if we knew where everything was [in the field], you could have gas in the right places, you could have a truck to unload crops in the right places, you could have people standing by if someone needed a part,” she said. “Planting and harvesting is very, very time-critical to optimize the harvest, so you can imagine it becoming a lot smoother and more predictable, and that they can count on using it.”
She continued: “When you can count on something, then you can start to plan for it and add optimization, which I’m sure hasn’t been added yet today.”
The aforementioned U.S. Department of Agriculture report states that realizing the full potential of digital technology “could generate approximately $47 billion to $65 billion a year in additional gross benefits to the U.S. economy. In other words, if broadband infrastructure, large-scale digital technology and on-farm capacity were available at a level that meets the estimated demand of producers, the U.S. could generate economic benefits equivalent to nearly 18 percent of total output based on 2017 levels.”
The good news is that there is a movement toward broadband in rural areas, with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission planning to allocate $9 billion to deploy 5G networks in rural areas . Earlier this week, the U.S. government-funded Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program launched its fourth testbed, which aims to test rural use cases and develop systems to reduce the cost of wireless deployment.