5G deadlock in global and Dutch agriculture

8 July 2021 • 6 min reading time

The latest generation of telecommunications 5G will be widely used in the future, there's no doubt about that. However, a global application of this technology in agriculture is still pending.

Download the position paper

'Avoiding a 5G implementation deadlock in the agriculture sector'

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This is despite the fact that new trends – including the emergence of circular agriculture and rapid developments in precision agriculture – are making the introduction of 5G even more urgent. Moreover, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says farmers will have to grow 70 per cent more food over the next 30 years to feed the world's growing population. To meet this demand, farmers will have to use the latest technologies in cultivation, with better quality and less labour. 

Chicken and egg problem 

Although no one doubts the many possibilities of 5G, there has been a delay in rolling out the technology in agriculture. This is the result of a complex stalemate. The deadlock has nothing to do with the technology itself, but with the fact that there is no global coverage in rural areas that are important for agriculture. 

Because 5G is hardly used, no masts are being erected and because of the absence of masts, no 5G-related innovations are being made by the major agricultural manufacturers. Matthijs Vonder, senior research scientist at TNO, explains: “It’s a chicken and egg problem. If the agricultural machinery does not have the technology, no masts need to be erected. But the equipment and machines don't have the technology because there are no masts.” 

No coverage in rural areas 

In the past year, TNO has been researching the opportunities for and possibilities of 5G for the agricultural sector in the Netherlands and abroad as part of the 5Groningen fieldlab. Interviews were held with various parties, including farmers, suppliers, service providers and manufacturers. “The larger manufacturers indicate that a significant part of their market is in foreign countries. And in such countries, the rural areas are still genuinely rural in many cases. Here in the Netherlands, we do have areas like East Groningen, but there the coverage is still quite good”, Vonder explains. 

The United States, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, but also France and Germany are examples of agricultural countries with large rural areas. “People do have mobile phones, but they are not necessarily wirelessly accessible in all places. In addition, meadows or fields are often some distance away and it is certainly not evident that they have coverage.”

'We hope that telecom operators, larger farm equipment manufacturers and industry associations will join us in considering solutions to the deadlock we are currently in.'

Seeking solutions together 

Consequently, the larger agricultural manufacturers do not want to invest in 5G technology on tractors or other vehicles and machines because it can hardly be used in those countries. And it is not profitable to do it only for the Netherlands. Vonder: “We occasionally see smaller parties applying it. But most of the equipment and machinery that are on the farm still come from the big suppliers.” 

According to Vonder, there are parties who are willing to contribute constructively to finding solutions. He explains: “You could look at alternatives, such as having your own farm infrastructure. But we need to investigate this carefully. In such cases, an installation business should be involved to set up that infrastructure. We would therefore like to invite various parties to enter into discussions with us. We hope that telecom operators, larger farm equipment manufacturers and industry associations will join us in considering solutions to the deadlock we are currently in.”

Vonder leaves open the possibility that there will be no global solution: “It will probably not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. But hopefully we will find something interesting enough for the farm equipment manufacturers in Europe.” TNO elaborates on this in its position paper “Avoiding a 5G implementation deadlock in the agriculture sector”. 

The great importance of 5G in agriculture 

Asked about the possibilities that 5G offers compared with 4G, Vonder says: “Far more data can be sent simultaneously with a shorter delay. This high bandwidth is especially important for agriculture. Examples include sensor data coming from a tractor or sending video images in real time.” 

With 5G, it is also easier to control things remotely via a camera. “The smart part of the system can then be located further away and does not need to be installed on board. This means that decisions can be made based on remote viewing. Moreover, with 5G you don't have to be bothered by other users in the neighbourhood because a separate peak lane can be kept free for certain services. In technical terms, this is called ‘slicing’.” 

'Some examples of current projects are drones for crop inspection, a weed robot, virtual fencing for cows and cows with 5G collars'

5G applications 

Vonder gives 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. That means a mechanic must come. Perhaps the mechanic only needs to press a button or tighten a nut. So wouldn't it be great if the mechanic could observe the situation with a digital connection. In that case, he then doesn't need to drive all the way there.”

There are also many possible applications in the Netherlands, especially as coverage is much less of a problem here. According to TNO, there is also a clear need for advanced data communication in the fields, as well as in sheds and stables.

Some examples of current projects are drones for crop inspection, a sensor network for water quality measurement, a weed robot, virtual fencing for cows, cows with 5G collars and the ‘PieperKieker’. This latter example is a potato selection machine that can drive independently over a potato field in a systematic manner to check the quality of the potato plants. 

Thinking in terms of possibilities   

Nevertheless, the Netherlands will also suffer if large manufacturers do not wish to go along with the agricultural innovations (because of their global sales market) that 5G facilitates. For this reason, TNO wishes to discuss possible interim solutions. “Connection via satellite, for example”, says Vonder. “I realise that it's expensive, but it’s also expensive to send a mechanic a long distance to tighten a screw. That is precisely why we are very keen on meeting with various parties. Together we may be able to come up with business models and products that make these kinds of connections interesting, even if there is not always coverage via 5G from the telecom operator.” 

Setting up and sharing a private network with completely different parties, e.g. education authorities, could also be a solution. “If there are several stakeholders, you can join forces and share the costs”, says Vonder. “But to explore these solutions, several parties are needed. We are looking in particular for large farmers' cooperatives, industry associations, telecom operators, the larger farm equipment manufacturers.”

Join the discussion with TNO 

As no party can resolve the deadlock on its own, the parties will have to join forces. Only if all stakeholders pull together can agriculture truly innovate and produce enough food for the entire world. 

After the summer of 2021, TNO will organise a round table meeting for this purpose, as soon as the COVID-19 measures allow. During this meeting, participants will discuss the deadlock surrounding 5G in agriculture and how it can be broken. The above position paper provides an initial impetus.

The aim is twofold. On the one hand, TNO wants to encourage 5G innovations for global applications in agriculture. On the other hand, TNO wants to ensure that these innovations can be applied within the Dutch agricultural sector as soon as possible. 

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