The internet of things, or IoT, is getting rising attention in agriculture. The falling prices of sensors and advancements in sensor design offer the potential of real-time access to a range of in-season data that’s much more precise than what was used in the past. Farm Progress talked with Steven Tompkins, director of sector development-agriculture, Inmarsat.
Often, when farmers think about field connectivity, they turn to the cellular network — but Tompkins offered a different perspective in his role at the company. What follows is a question-and-answer session conducted with Tompkins over email recently.
We don’t always think of satellite communications when we think of IoT. What is Inmarsat’s view of the role of that tech for connected sensors? Connectivity is a crucial component of IoT. If you can’t get the data from devices in the field into the hands of those who need it, then the system is redundant. But agricultural operations are often located in remote areas, where terrestrial connectivity types such as 4G or fiber are not available. Thus, satellite is a crucial part of the connectivity mix, as it is accessible anywhere on the planet and can easily be integrated with other connectivity types to ensure reliable coverage.
The high cost and complexity of deploying cellular infrastructure across remote agriculture operations means that satellite communication networks are playing a critical role in transferring data gathered by connected sensors, machines and vehicles back to control centers. This capability is crucial in providing complete and real-time visibility of conditions out in the field and helping staff make better decisions.
How should farmers view IoT? For some, it’s viewed as an expense — since it’s so new, payback has not been fully researched. IoT is already playing a central role in helping farmers achieve greater efficiencies, productivity and sustainability in their farming operations. We are already seeing farmers reaping the benefits of existing IoT applications, such as precise weather information to inform field decisions, soil moisture monitoring to make better irrigation decisions, and monitoring of machinery to prevent breakdowns during critical operations. Efficiency is a major short-term payback of IoT applications. For example, remote monitoring of irrigation systems or grain storage removes the need for people to travel to sites to check installations manually, and alerts the farmer in real time to any problems which, unless dealt with rapidly, could lead to major crop loss.
Although smart farming is a relatively new concept, our research tells us that many farmers recognize the potential it holds for transforming their operations and are already starting to deploy IoT solutions. Some 22% of the agriculture respondents we surveyed last year had deployed IoT-based solutions; a further 29% were in trials. Importantly, these early deployments are starting to deliver considerable benefits from higher yields, more cost-efficient operations and improved sustainability. However, what’s clear from the findings is that connectivity is a struggle that many farming organizations face, with 39% identifying this as a challenge. This reinforces the notion that if farmers are to take advantage of the huge potential IoT offers, overcoming the connectivity challenges will be crucial.
How do you view the connectivity landscape in rural areas? What opportunities do farmers have? With low population density and often limited infrastructure, the connectivity options in rural areas are, typically, limited. If there is connectivity available, it often lacks the reliability or coverage needed for IoT-based solutions to provide real-time visibility of field conditions.
To address this connectivity shortfall, farmers could opt to build their own terrestrial network, but that could snowball into a very expensive endeavor. Building a single cell tower can cost anywhere between $100,000 and $350,000, and over a large area you may end up requiring multiple towers. In addition, once you’ve built the towers, you’ve got to spend money maintaining and protecting them, adding further financial pressure. If you own a farming business where the majority of your land is rented, then investing in your own terrestrial infrastructure is not always practical, appropriate or even possible.
In these situations, satellite can be the fastest, most efficient, most reliable and most cost-effective option, not requiring farmers to make big upfront capital investments. By leveraging satellite, farmers can get their IoT projects off the ground quickly and accelerate the return on investment.
What does Inmarsat bring to the table, and how does the general understanding of the tech impact sales and adoption? Our satellite network is global and is relied upon by governments, sea and air vessels and land-based industries worldwide; and we have a 40-year-history of delivering pioneering and industry-leading global mobile satellite services. However, connectivity is only part of the picture. We have been working tirelessly to ensure that we’ve got the right partners, skills and technical capabilities in place to ensure that we can enable a more connected world and support the IoT initiatives of our customers.
Today we offer an end-to-end managed IoT service to the agriculture sector, and our dedicated agriculture team respond to a variety of customer challenges. We design the solution, build it, manage it and evolve it as our customers’ needs change — working closely with them to understand their pain points and put in place solutions that can help to address them, and help them achieve better business outcomes.
Essentially, we’ve got the building blocks to tailor solutions specifically for this market, which we can deliver to agricultural businesses anywhere on the planet. Working with Inmarsat’s global and reliable satellite communications network means that data is always delivered to where it needs to be, and we can provide data analytics applications to enable farmers to extract full value from their IoT solutions. Our partnership with Microsoft Azure means that our customers can benefit from powerful applications hosted in Microsoft’s market-leading cloud platform, and that Microsoft’s customers can take advantage of our satellite connectivity network to get their data to wherever it needs to be. This means that Inmarsat is in a prime position to help farmers to take advantage of the agri-tech revolution and transform their operations.
Share more of your thoughts on the topic? What more should farmers be asking? IoT can have transformative effects on the farming sector; but as with all technologies, it’s important that farmers don’t jump on the bandwagon for the sake of it. If you rush out IoT deployments without having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and no clear metrics for success, you’ll struggle to get the benefits and a good return on investment. Being absolutely clear on the aspirations for your business, and then thinking about what information would be required to help you reach those aspirations, is a good first step. This could be anything from creating efficiencies and reducing the need for manual crop scouting, improving yields by having more granular data on field variability, or reducing postharvest losses.
IoT can make nearly any operation run smoother, but deployment can be complex. In most cases, it is better to enlist the help of the experts early on who can employ a consultative approach to design a solution — then bring in the right technologies for your needs, ensuring effective communication from field to platform and that the data is going to the right place.