How can 5G aid the Indian farming sector through the agritech segment and create employment?
With the world’s population expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates agriculture will need to produce almost 50 per cent more food, livestock fodder, and biofuel than in 2012 to satisfy global demand. FAO projects that nearly 670 million people will still be facing hunger in 2030, 8 per cent of the world population. Around 2.3 billion people in the world dealt with moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, and 11.7 per cent of the global population faced food insecurity at severe levels. Given this context, the options are to increase agricultural productivity or remove efficiencies in the agriculture value chain.
Low technology adoption is an opportunity
The adoption of digital technologies seems to be the obvious answer to these challenges, and yet the agriculture sector ranks among the lowest in terms of embracing technological advancements. To flip around the problem, it means that the scope for digitizing the agriculture value chain is enormous. It can be not only helpful in feeding the world’s hungry but also create new-tech jobs in the farm and food industry, thereby weaning away the burden of vast and unsustainable employment in this sector.
Research and consulting firm, Omdia’s LTE and 5G Private Networks Tracker Report – 2021 found that only 2 per cent of private network solution announcements and 1 per cent of private network rollout deal announcements between 2016 and 2021 related to the agricultural sector. The potential remains for individual farms to procure private networks covering their fields and pastures to support future digital solutions.
Indian agriculture presents a massive US$600-billion opportunity (20% of GDP as per Economic Survey 2020-21), yet it is hobbled with serious challenges ranging from 90% of farmers being in the small & marginal category, small land holdings impeding the use of large scale mechanization, and bearing the burden of nearly 50% of employment in this sector.
5G can unlock $12.3 trillion in revenue
At the same time, there is a transformative opportunity that is emerging with the introduction of 5G technology to enable the digitization of farms. 5G is predicted to produce $12.3 trillion in revenue and 22 million employments globally. With the potential for 5G to establish new business models in a variety of industries, including automotive and manufacturing, use cases in agriculture hold a lot of promise for the future of smart farms and their ability to harness data’s value. This has the potential to train our farmhands in new technologies to operate the digital ecosystem and the new kinds of farm equipment like UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for precision farming.
5G is projected to take things to the next level by allowing machine learning and near-real-time communication between devices and the cloud, as well as much higher internet speeds (up to 100 times faster than 4G). Agricultural original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) may profit from automated agricultural procedures enabled by next-generation 5G technologies, which allow them to gather and analyze rich data from their machines and terrain from a distance.
Farmers will have access to a wide range of upgraded technology thanks to 5G. A wider network of data-gathering sensors can provide a more accurate picture of field conditions. Autonomous drones can scan fields using artificial intelligence to detect weeds and spray pesticides with pinpoint accuracy. More importantly, farmers will be able to evaluate their water usage better and make irrigation system modifications based on reliable data.
The paradigm shift of precision agriculture
Emerging technology known as precision agriculture is ushering in a much-needed paradigm shift in farming and ranching practices that promises many competitive advantages, including maximizing resources, optimizing crop and livestock yields, cutting costs, and preserving the environment. But, realizing precision agriculture’s true potential depends heavily, if not entirely, on having dependable access to the high network speeds, ultra-low latency, and broadband that 5G wireless connectivity provides at a lower cost per bit than previously possible.
This is because 5G networking is the infrastructure that enables smarter data communications between farm management systems and edge computing of Internet of Things (IoT) devices—such as drones, sensors, robots, and autonomous vehicles—that gather and transmit data to physical- and cloud-based facilities.
This data is then analyzed and used to keep the processes running optimally and to improve outcomes for farmers, ranchers, and the entire food supply chain. These tech-forward farm devices also require 5G’s high-speed, ultra-low latency connections to autonomously perform tasks at the scale that would otherwise require manual labour.
Powered by high-speed 5G connectivity, precision agriculture enables IoT and robotic devices to perform a wide array of time-and labour-intensive farming and ranching activities in real-time, around the clock, even in harsh conditions. Here are some of the ways that IT-driven devices and equipment interoperability can cost-effectively boost productivity, food security, and traceability through the supply chain, among other benefits, often with little to no human involvement:
- Unmanned tractors can autonomously plough rows and rows of farmland using GPS and computer vision for guidance
- Harvesters and offloading systems can use sensors and machine-to-machine communications to cost-efficiently manage farm operations and share data about the volume of crops being harvested
- Devices can gather, track and share key metrics from the field about conditions like soil health, pests, and crop quality so that remote staff can modify equipment settings and processes to optimize productivity
- Autonomous ground robots can autonomously regulate how and when dairy cows move to and from automated milking machines
- Leveraging machine learning, robots can perform a variety of tasks, such as bruise-free picking and harvesting and identifying and measuring the ripeness of fruit to minimize fruit decay and spoilage.
- Drones and autonomous driving vehicles can perform tasks that are difficult, dangerous, or impossible for workers to do safely
An opportunity for telecom in agriculture
The introduction of 5G is also opening up exciting new opportunities for telecom service providers. Service providers and the technologies they provide can play an important role in the digitization of agricultural operations. Service providers with rural low-power wireless networks, cloud, and analytics capabilities should evaluate opportunities across the sector.
As digital transformation progresses, demand for numerous solutions can be expected to emerge from 5G, which is a platform for both the connection of thousands of low-power sensors and support for the high-bandwidth and low-latency requirements of autonomous machinery and drones. IoT (Internet of Things) promises the proliferation of devices to monitor and manage crops and livestock, eventually bringing automation and extensive data collection to allow production monitoring at the micro level, with the health and growth of individual livestock or plants optimized by the management of their environment
IoT will also need cloud services for the integration of shared datasets, storage, analysis, and decision-making in the cloud from the proliferation of devices. The farm as a network with local seasonal requirements may emerge as a new opportunity for service providers to launch private networks. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be central to allowing the mass of data produced by sensors and machinery to deliver insights and automation All these services leverage the connectivity products at the core of the service provider’s portfolio. Emphasis on security during the sales of connectivity solutions and the provision of redundancy options as a feature will take advantage of these core capabilities.
Challenges in tech adoption
Notwithstanding the opportunities, there are serious issues to be addressed before value can be unlocked. But each of these presents an opportunity to be explored and create business value. The challenges include:
- Connectivity: The reach of wireless networks remains a limitation for adoption in many areas. The economics and utility of many connected solutions depend on complete coverage, which may not be commercially viable to deploy.
- Expensive upfront costs: Smart farming will generally require the implementation of an integrated system rather than the deployment of a single device or technology.
- While farming requires high capital investment in land and machinery, with digital investments seen through the same lens, the integration costs of solutions from multiple vendors mean there is a risk to potential operating cost savings.
- Talent: Digital skills tend to be less developed in rural areas, and traditional farmers tend to be older and less comfortable with adopting digital solutions. This may add significant time to the adoption of new practices and solutions.
- Regulatory frameworks: Country-specific rules and regulations are imposed by governments when it comes to technology adoption, such as the use of drones, which may violate privacy laws. Service providers need to ensure that proposed solutions comply with local regulatory frameworks.
- Cybersecurity: Just as in other sectors, cybersecurity is one of the biggest concerns. Because of the network-driven nature of IoT-based technologies, they are susceptible to malicious attacks such as unauthorized access and data theft. Farmers may not be familiar with establishing internal security policies, which could make it hard to set up effective governance.
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(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)