LACK of mobile coverage impacting take up of profit boosting technology may be a thing of the past, as a narrowband network rolls out to connect the emerging crop of in-field sensors and switches to monitor and manage production systems.
Despite the healthy scepticism the farm sector has about digital hype narrowband networks can change the face of farming, offering cheap access to valuable production data.
Australia’s narrowband network will be built in a joint venture dubbed Connected Country, comprised of two local firms National Narrowband Network (NNN Co) and Discovery Ag (a subsidiary of Delta Agribusiness).
Discovery Ag chief executive Alicia Garden said Connected Country represented a vote of faith in the role sensor technology and the internet of things (IoT) would play in agriculture.
“This is a key enabling technology and no one has rolled the dice like this before,” Ms Garden said.
Taking tech to paddock
Government-funded mobile blackspot schemes have delivered limited results to improving cellular coverage in the bush; farmers still lack coverage in their paddocks, where connectivity to production data is needed.
Narrowband networks run on unused radio frequency over a long range offer a cheap alternative to cellular mobile networks.
The system Connected Country uses is referred to as a Lora network. LoRaWAN is the patented protocol that enables the sensors to speak to the gateway.
Sensors designed to run on narrowband networks capture production data, which can be linked to farm management software to manage input usage, pasture growth and feed budgeting, cell grazing, crop rotation and the list goes on.
Information collected by any sensor, such as a soil moisture probe, weather monitor or water meter, is pinged to a gateway base station, which loads (backhauls) to the internet, through satellite or a mobile network.
Ms Garden said Connected Country subscriber costs will undercut cellular networks and will run in the range of “dollars per sensor per month, not tens of dollars”.
“The JV is a commercial venture, so there will be a return on investment, but we’re hoping to end user cost is low enough that customers won’t question it,” Ms Garden said.
Connected Country is open to access from sensors from any technology provider and networks customers control their data. Sensor development will be left up to other private providers.
“Our intention is to have preferred partners, and farmers buy their hardware from them, possibly with a number of years connectivity built into the price,” Ms Garden said.
“It needs to be as easy as possible to use, so you just unpack a box and it works.”
While narrowband networks are already emerging in urban areas, this is the first initiative in rural Australia, among an international effort to build networks dedicated to an internet of things, or a web of interconnected sensors.
This week New Zealand telcos and Spark and Vodafone each announced plans to develop services for narrowband networks. Comcast is aiming to build a national network in the US and other companies are following suit across the globe.
An initial roll out covered 400,000ha across Central West NSW’s Macquarie Valley, Hilltops and Lockhart regions. Now Connected Country aims to cover “vast areas of Australia’s farming regions” in the next 18 months.
Ms Garden said demand for the rural narrowband infrastructure will grow with availability.
“We believe that if the infrastructure is built than people will use it. For us, the clear benefit is for agriculture, but other verticals will use it as well.
“Energy utilities, mining, infrastructure are all playing with the technology. Our idea was to make the system publicly available to other industries and drive the cost down for agriculture.”
Vikram Kumar founded New Zealand narrowband network provider Kotahi two years ago.
His network services rural and urban businesses, including dairy, horticulture and aquaculture, connecting sensors that measure soil moisture, weather, frost alarms and so on.
“Our standard price is $1 per month per sensor. That is just fraction of cellular network costs,” Mr Kumar said.
He said agriculture was the largest part of his business, but it “is still at a avery early stage”.
“Most farmers haven’t begun to hear about the opportunity and potential of the technology. The next few years are about acceptance and understanding.”
Soil moisture is the most popular sensor solution for Kotahi, “but our company is looking to build a solution in animal feed management, in silos, and we have a level monitor that allows feed managers to supply when it is needed,” Mr Kumar said.
NNN Co chief executive Rob Zagarella said sensors in narrowband networks link to the gateway over large distances.
If located in a good position, on clear land or on top of a hill, for example, a base station on the network can cover between 10 kilometres to 15km, he said.
NNN Co has narrowband networks up and running in urban areas, connecting sensor data for water and energy utilities as well as smart buildings and universities.
Mr Zagarella said NNN Co’s networks do not not just receive sensor data.
“The way we’ve deployed this technology means we use it for non-mission critical control systems, where a message comes from the cloud to switch and control devices.
“An example of that is a public streetlight solution. There is a big movement from councils and utilities to automate control of streetlights to save energy, which we do with Lora.”
NNN Co provides netowrks to Queensland’s Ergon Energy, which uses it to switch hot water heaters on between times of peak and off peak demand.