Cara Eisenpress - - Agtech

New Networks Are Letting Rural Farmers Wirelessly Manage Their Fields

While rural America is becoming more wired, it still lags behind urban and suburban areas when it comes to broadband access. And that’s bad news for agriculture. When farmers lack a way to connect, they can miss out on crucial technologies, especially agtech innovations like digital sensors and data analysis, which can help increase yields, improve predictions, or streamline farm management.

But rural farmers now have an option besides broadband. Networks that send much smaller amounts of data at longer ranges allow for a way to extend connectivity into areas that are too difficult or too expensive to wire. With this kind of network, a field can “talk” to a computer, which is one way to provide key insights to farmers who operate on razor-thin margins with very little margin for error.

When farmers lack a way to connect, they can miss out on crucial technologies.

Low Power, Little Data

The crucial technology has been built by the LoRa Alliance. This Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) of 67 member operators in 41 countries uses a specification protocol called LoRaWAN to connect to sensors that measure anything from gas emissions inside poultry buildings, to moisture in grain silos, to animals’ locations, to soil nutrient levels. For farmers, that could mean placing data-gathering sensors and a base station on their property, and connecting those “things” to a cloud-based analytical application. The resulting insights can be applied directly to daily operations—for example, through more targeted irrigation or fertilizer application. Some farmers are also attaching sophisticated sensors to their animals.

“Animals can be quite a high investment. We want to know where they are, and that they’re healthy,” says Sara Brown, a LoRa Alliance marketing co-chair representing member company Multitech.

LoRaWAN can be critical in places where broadband connectivity is lacking, though it’s important to note that LoRaWAN won’t help farmers stream television shows, which requires large amounts of data. But these networks do allow farmers access to a range of useful technologies. According to the latest Pew research, rural Americans are still 10 percent less likely than Americans overall to have broadband at home, and 39 percent of rural America lacks access to basic broadband service, compared with only four percent of the country’s urban population.

“There are white spaces where there’s no coverage for these folks,” says Brown. And bringing traditional broadband service to rural areas can be expensive and cumbersome. LoRaWAN, on the other hand, is affordable and discrete.

LoRa on Your Farm

New battery-operated, long-life sensor technologies can be planted underground along with seed, and gather data on soil, sunlight, and rainfall. “Without better data for what’s happening with soil moisture or sun exposure, the farmer is basically totally at the mercy of Mother Nature,” says Brown. This technology can be rolled out for a season, “if not 10 [seasons], because it’s a very low power drop,” she adds. Tiny bits and bytes of data are sensed as often as once every 10 minutes, and LoRaWAN is designed to handle as much.

The technology also makes it easy to monitor what’s happening all throughout the farm. “What’s nice about LoRaWAN is its long range, so you can cover basically a five-mile radius within wherever you’ve put your base station,” says Brown. When placed on top of a barn or silo, for example, it can gather data on most of a farm’s facilities and communicate directly to the gateway.

Tiny bits and bytes of data are sensed as often as once every 10 minutes.

Do It Yourself

This year, the LoRa Alliance expects to see an uptick in sensor devices that farmers can purchase and deploy themselves. “Whether I’m raising turkeys or maintaining huge fields of corn or soybeans, I can go to my local co-op and buy a system that I can make work on my own,” says Brown. Some farmers are already putting LoRaWAN technology to work in innovative ways, from pest control to building monitoring to sensing shifts in weather and animal biology.

“If a pregnant cow is going into labor five miles down the road from us, we can get to them and make sure the delivery goes well,” Brown says, referring to an actual application by an Alliance member company.

Ultimately, reducing risk and increasing yields easily and affordably is a necessity for farmers, and LoRaWAN offers the flexibility to do so. “The LoRaWAN specification opens the door to either build your own or to buy,” says Brown. Farmers can roll the technology out themselves and own that network, or they spread costs over time by paying a small monthly fee to an operator. “It gives you a little more choice than you get with any other communications technology candidate,” says Brown. In other words, you can be as independent and self-sufficient as you like.