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Vonnie Estes speaking at CES 2020

5G made waves at CES but has long road to relevance on-farm

January 27, 2020

Editor’s Note: Vonnie Estes is VP of Technology at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and a regular contributor to AFN – see her previous posts here. PMA represents companies from every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain.

Estes is a prominent figure in the agriculture biotech scene, having held technology leadership roles at prominent companies including DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as for small startups and venture funds. Most recently, she was vice president of business development for Caribou Biosciences, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing startup. She’s also been an independent business consultant since 2015.

Here she reflects on her recent visit to CEA in Las Vegas.

5G loomed large at CES 2020. “5G” was written in the sky Tuesday morning in Las Vegas as the show kicked off. The technology now has real-world applications and the nation’s carriers are building out their 5G networks as we speak. This fifth-generation cellular network is 10 times faster than 4G LTE. Instead of waiting five minutes to download a movie in 4G, it will take 30 seconds on 5G. In addition, to use on personal devices, 5G will have revolutionary industrial applications. Whether it’s used for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous driving, or smart appliances and smart cities, 5G is expected to usher in a host of connected devices and applications to take traffic lights, power grids, and more into the future.

3G let us text, 4G let us use Uber and stream Netflix, and 5G will give us machine-to-machine communication with no latency. 5G was developed for high-density urban areas like airports and stadiums for streaming movies and video chatting over distances of no more than 300 meters with data streaming from the cloud to the phone. The result is ultra-fast 5G requires a far greater number of cellular towers, placed closer together. Creating this infrastructure takes time. Because high-frequency waves have a harder time traveling over distance and through objects, the 5G network will be built on small cell site technology with antennas as close as 500 feet apart.

Does that sound like it would work for farmers? No. We have very long distances to cover, often discontinuous, with a need for heavy data flowing to the cloud, not from the cloud, and pesky objects like trees in the way.

At CES and elsewhere, people are talking about the transformation of agriculture with 5G as if it is around the corner. We see illustrations of drone swarms and autonomous vehicles with no person in sight. It’s a great vision but as with many new technologies, we are 10-15 years away with major roadblocks.

Rural America has weak or no G

Thirty-five percent of rural America has no broadband. Sixty percent of U.S. farmers that have broadband do not have adequate internet connectivity to run their businesses. Slow, unreliable internet connection is common, regardless of connection type and location. When connections are interrupted or slow, the world seems to stop. Basic tasks take longer or can’t be completed.

5G is not a hammer and farms are not a nail

A potential high-tech future includes masses of small farm machines waking up in the barn, driving or flying to the field and getting real-time prescriptions as a result of deep science analytics for water, fertilizer, pesticide, and seed inputs from the cloud. 5G, or some leapfrog technology, will give machines the ability to talk to each other with no latency and run autonomously to do the work of farming. But currently, we have real problems that can be solved by bringing 4G technology to the farm.

Large tech companies are developing ways to deliver connectivity to underserved areas. Google is developing Loon, using high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds. SpaceX is launching Starlink, with the aim of providing internet to next the 4 billion users with a satellite network. Microsoft is exploiting unused TV white space. Many companies are looking at larger antennas and private data networks with specifically licensed spectra.

Software and equipment companies are not going to let their futures be dictated by the timing of telecom carriers bringing 5G to the farm. They are developing the capability for analysis on farm equipment or nearby servers. AWS and others are investing in edge computing for remote locations like mines and farms. Edge computing analyzes and processes data close to the source rather than sending raw data to the cloud. Other companies are developing a hybrid system, building large algorithms in the cloud and pulling smaller analytics to the edge.

What problems need to be solved?

Never before have growers had so much information at their fingertips. From sensors embedded in farm machinery to satellite images, data is flowing everywhere. With the increased use of computer vision, the amount of data produced will continue to explode. But raw data is mostly irrelevant. It often lives on thumb drives and gets lost in transit, remaining unanalyzed due to a lack of broadband connection. Currently, data are often collected and brought back to an office computer for analysis or sent by thumb drive to a consultant with a 4 day turn around. This does not allow for real-time decision making. Future robots delivering and preforming prescriptive actions in milliseconds would be great. But a 4G-enabled, 5-minute lag, prescription on a single pane of glass for the grower to implement would have an immediate impact.

Deep science analytics empowered by machine learning provides information to predict the best time to plant, outbreaks of pests and disease before they occur, and to offer in-field inventory management that gives yield predictions prior to harvest. This information should allow farms to increase their sustainability with fewer inputs and greater profits an less risk. Analytics are also needed to meet the growing need for traceability from farm to consumers. Data from the farm play a vital role in the post-farm-gate supply chain, including identifying and dealing with food safety issues, mitigating spoilage and food waste, and cold chain monitoring.

New use cases: 5G or XG

Workable, fast internet with low latency connection on the farm will bring great benefits when available. Fast connection to the cloud with the ability to do real-time analytics to transmit water, pesticide, and seed prescriptions back to an autonomous vehicle, will enable decision-making down to sections of a farm. Multiple small vehicles/drones interacting in the fields will have reduced soil compaction, provide less expensive vehicles, and allow for less downtime from broken machines. Sensors will be smaller and have longer-lived batteries due to lower energy transmission. 5G could help to provide consistent, high-speed connectivity for drones so that they don’t have to carry a massive amount of processing power onboard. With 5G, we could afford to have 20 little bug vacuums in the field sucking off harmful insects instead of spraying insecticides. Plenty of potential high-speed use cases exist and we should continue to watch and support the development in rural areas.

Investments and start-ups

5G as we envision it now may or may not end up on the farm. Farmers, startups, and investors should use caution in investing in products requiring 5G if near term ROI is necessary. One exception is vertical farms. Often located in urban centers with a smaller footprint, vertical farms may be the pioneers of 5G in growing crops and help to develop technology for the field.  For outdoor farms, we should continue to look for what problems need to be solved and what technology can solve it – there are plenty of opportunities. The entire ecosystem from carriers to farmers must see a path to ROI before investing in rural 5G. 

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