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The latest generation of 5G telecommunications will be widely deployed in the future, that much is certain. But the global application of this technology in agriculture is still a long way off. At the same time, new trends – including the rise of circular agriculture and rapid developments in precision agriculture – make the deployment of 5G more urgent than ever.

On top of that, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says farmers will need to grow 70 percent more food over the next 30 years to feed the world’s growing population. To meet this demand, farmers will need to use the latest technologies while farming, with better quality and less labor.

The 5G impasse – a chicken-and-egg problem

While no one doubts the many possibilities of 5G, there has been a holdup in the rollout of the technology within agriculture. A complex stalemate underlies this. This impasse has nothing to do with the technology per se but with the fact that there is no global coverage in rural areas that are important to agriculture.

Because 5G is hardly being used, no pylons are being erected. Their absence, in turn, means that no 5G-related innovations are taking place at major agricultural manufacturers, either. Matthijs Vonder, senior research scientist at TNO, explains, “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. If agricultural machinery doesn’t have the technology, there’s no need to put up any pylons. But the equipment and machinery don’t have the technology because there are no pylons.”

No coverage in rural areas

Within the 5Groningen living lab in the Netherlands, TNO conducted research last year into the opportunities and possibilities of 5G for the agricultural sector in the Netherlands and beyond. Interviews were conducted with various parties including farmers, farmyard operators and manufacturers. “The larger manufacturers indicate that a significant part of their sales market is outside the Netherlands. And there, the rural areas are often still extremely rural. Here in the Netherlands we do have areas like Oost-Groningen, but there is often good coverage there,” explains Vonder.

The United States, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, but also France and Germany are examples of agricultural countries with a lot of rural areas. “People there do have cell phones but they are not necessarily wirelessly accessible everywhere. Also, the pastures or fields are often some distance away and it is certainly not a given that there is coverage there.”

Working together to find solutions to the 5G impasse

The result is that the larger agricultural manufacturers don’t want to invest in 5G technology on tractors or other vehicles or machinery because it can’t be used in those countries or even used at all. And it’s not cost-effective to do it just for the Netherlands. Vonder says: “We sometimes see some smaller parties applying it. But most farm equipment originates from the big suppliers.”

According to Vonder, there are parties who are willing to help think of solutions. He says: “You could look at alternatives, such as having your own infrastructure on the farm. But this is something we need to look into properly. In such a case, an installation company would have to be involved to set up the infrastructure. That’s why we want to invite different parties to talk to us. We hope that telecom operators, the (larger) machinery manufacturers and industry associations from the sector will join us in thinking about solutions to the impasse we are currently facing.”

Vonder is keeping the possibility open that there won’t be a global solution: “It probably won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. But hopefully, we will find something that is interesting enough for machinery manufacturers in Europe.” A position paper on TNO’s website discusses this in more detail.

The great importance of 5G in agriculture

Asked about the possibilities that 5G offers compared to 4G, Vonder says: “A lot more data can be sent simultaneously with a shorter delay. The high bandwidth in particular is important for agriculture. Think of sensor data coming from a tractor or the real-time transmission of video images.”

With 5G, it’s also easier to control things remotely through a camera. “The smart part of the system can then be farther away and therefore does not need to be installed on board. This way, remote monitoring can be done and decisions can be made based on that. Also, with 5G you won’t be disturbed by other users in the vicinity since a separate peak lane can be kept free for certain services. In technical terms, this is called slicing.”

5G applications in agriculture

Vonder outlines an example of one of the applications of 5G in agriculture: “Suppose your tractor suddenly breaks down somewhere abroad and you are far from the farm. Then a mechanic has to come. Perhaps that mechanic only has to press a button or tighten a nut. It would be great if they could instruct you through a digital connection instead of doing it themselves. The mechanic would then not have to travel all the way to the site.”

There are also many possible applications in the Netherlands, particularly because coverage is much less of a problem here. According to TNO, there is also a clear need for advanced data communication on land and in stables. Some examples of current projects are drones for crop inspection, a sensor network for water quality measurement, a hoeing robot, virtual fencing for cows, cows with 5G collars and the Pieperkieker. This last innovation concerns a potato selection cart. The cart drives independently and systematically over a potato field to check the quality of the potato plants.

Photo: TNO

Thinking in terms of possibilities

Nevertheless, the Netherlands will also suffer if the major manufacturers – because of their worldwide sales market – do not want to adopt agricultural innovations that 5G will make possible. TNO therefore wants to discuss, among other things, what intermediate solutions are possible.

“A connection via satellite, for example,” says Vonder. “Yes, that’s expensive. But it’s also expensive to have a mechanic come from far away to tighten a screw. That is precisely why we are so keen to sit down at the table with various parties. Together, we may be able to come up with business models and products that make these kinds of connections interesting, even in the absence of uninterrupted 5G coverage from the telecom operator.”

Setting up and sharing a private network with completely different parties, such as educational institutions, for example, could also be a solution. “If there are multiple stakeholders, you can combine it and share the costs,” says Vonder. “But to explore these solutions, multiple parties are needed. In particular, we are looking for large farmers’ cooperatives, industry associations, telecom operators and the larger machine manufacturers.

Talks with TNO on the 5G impasse in agriculture

Because no single party can solve the deadlock independently, forces must be combined. Only if all stakeholders pull together can agriculture truly innovate and produce enough food for the entire world.

To this end, TNO will organize a round table discussion after the summer of 2021, as soon as the corona measures allow. During this discussion, participants will exchange views on the impasse around 5G in agriculture. Afterward, it will be discussed how this deadlock can be broken. An initial impetus was already provided in the position paper mentioned above.

The goal is twofold. On the one hand, TNO wants to stimulate 5G innovations for global applications in agriculture. On the other hand, they want to apply these innovations as soon as possible within the Dutch agricultural sector.

You can register for the round table discussion via: [email protected]


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