Choosing the Right Connectivity Solution for Your Agricultural Technology

Choosing the Right Connectivity Solution for Your Agricultural Technology

Ultimately the right connectivity option depends on the technology and its deployment, but to help make your decision here are my top seven things to consider.

As the number of agri- tech innovations available to growers’ increases year on year, the question of how to overcome a lack of reliable connectivity is more frequently being asked. Whether you are wanting to deploy weather stations and soil moisture sensors across a number of fields, transfer telemetry data from your farm machinery or monitor your irrigation pivot remotely it all requires the (often real-time) transfer of data from field to business application.

Regions such as Latin America, Asia Pacific and Africa often have unreliable or non-existent terrestrial connectivity such as 4G, so growers have to consider other options. Ultimately the right connectivity option depends on the technology and its deployment, but to help make your decision here are my top seven things to consider.

1. How much data do you need, and do you need it in real-time?

Before thinking about which connectivity option is right for you, it is important to think about your long term needs. Sure, you may own a harvester today which kicks out telemetry data on machinery status which you want to transfer in real-time, but are you likely to want to expand this in the future to other machines, sensors, weather stations, cattle monitoring and more. Having a plan of how much technology you are likely to adopt, and thus how much data you are likely to consume is the first step to choosing the right connectivity method.

2. Even if you have cellular signal, it may not be enough for your needs

Generally speaking, if you have reliable 4G coverage throughout your farm then this should be enough to transfer the data you need. GPRS, which is also known as 2G or 3G is often not reliable or fast enough to transfer even basic data from sensors and weather stations so you may need an alternative, even if it is just a backup for your real-time applications. Over large farm holdings, you may have a mix of coverage, with some areas reliably served by 4G and others not. In this case, you will need an alternative connectivity option to cover the whole farm. Unless you have large amounts of capital cost to spend on new cellular towers or Radio-Frequency solutions, satellite will be the only option.

3. Erecting cell towers is a good solution, but only if you can stomach $100,000s of capital cost…

Of-course, if you don’t have reliable cell signal, you can create it, right? True. This is an option to get reliable coverage for your chosen location, but don’t be fooled, it’s expensive, and I mean really expensive. There are few definitive figures, but estimates from a quick internet search suggest that anything from $100 – 350k USD is likely for a single cell tower plus all the infrastructure to provide power. Over a large area you may need multiple towers, and if the topography is undulating then the range of the tower will be reduced. Clearly if you own a farming business where the majority of your land is rented, then investing in, and establishing infrastructure is not always practical or appropriate. Another alternative is to wait and hope that cellular telecom providers will invest or expand their networks to cover your land. However, these decisions are generally based on the demand in the region, so if you farm in sparsely populated areas you could be waiting a while!

4. Network availability and reliability are as important as speed

When speaking connectivity, speed is inevitably mentioned a lot, but reliability is just as important. There is no point having good 4G coverage, if the connection is lost for hours, days or even weeks at a time. Cellular operators don’t often make the same commitments for network uptime in rural areas as they do in urban areas, so it is not uncommon that after an outage it can sometimes take weeks to recover the connection. Clearly, if you are relying on real-time data insights this isn’t a good situation to be in. Because reliability is so important to our customers, Inmarsat’s geostationary satellite network guarantees 99.9% uptime, which means that even in areas of cellular signal customers choose us as a back-up.

5. When choosing satellite, the higher the better!

Satellite is an excellent alternative connectivity option. First of all, it is ideal for deployment in remote locations with little infrastructure. Simply take the terminal out of the box, fire it up and you’re good to go. Secondly, the up-front cost is far less than other connectivity methods, simply paying for a terminal, which in some cases could also be leased. Then you pay for data on a monthly basis in the same way that you pay for a cell/mobile phone contract. Put simply it’s suitable for those who prefer an ongoing cost without the risk of huge upfront investment. The other benefits include a low power requirement and portable, ruggedized terminals which means you can quickly and easily establish connectivity and then move this around the farm.

However, it is important to know that not all satellites are created equal. There is much press and hype surrounding the use of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, also known as ‘NanoSats’ or ‘CubeSats’. These satellites are a lot cheaper to launch than their larger cousins which sit in geostationary orbit, which is why there has been rush of new entrants to the market. However, whilst the price of the connectivity may be lower than established providers, typically both the speed of connection, and the latency (the amount of time a message takes to travel between earth, the satellite and back) are much lower. This is due to several factors, but most notably because the satellites sit in a lower orbit, they travel round the earth quickly, so signal is lost and gained fast. Therefore if it is important for you to have real-time information sharing, LEO may not be for you. If you do choose to go with a LEO satellite operator, do your due diligence. The last thing you want to do is invest capital in specific terminals and hardware that talk to a specific satellite constellation, only then to find out that the network is not reliable enough, or worse still the company becomes insolvent in a few years’ time.

Clearly I am biased, but when considering large scale applications of connected devices, where the transfer of information is critical then look for an established provider. Inmarsat’s feel of satellites sit in geostationary orbit, guaranteeing 99.9% uptime and high data speeds. Our communications are so reliable they are depended on by Governments, sea and air vessels and land based industries worldwide.

6. When to use Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) and WiFi mesh networks

LPWAN and WiFi mesh networks are typically used to extend connectivity across a wider area. For example, if you have a satellite terminal in one part of the farm providing a WiFi connection, a WiFi mesh can be used to extend that connectivity over a larger area, typically ~2.5km. This means that applications that require data transfer across the farm can still take advantage of the connectivity. In our Plantation Connectivity solution we use a WiFi mesh network to aggregate and transfer data from farm machinery used by front of work teams at sugar cane harvest in order to predict maintenance and respond quickly to breakdowns. LPWAN, is typically used in the same manner, however the key advantage is that coverage can extend over longer ranges (up to 50km dependent on the terrain). Generally LPWAN is used for applications that consume less data, such as information from weather stations or sensors

7. Consider calling in the experts

Connectivity is complex, with a number of options and ways to deploy them to achieve the desired outcome. On top of choosing the right connectivity method, you also want all your data to flow to the right applications, ideally all in one place. This doesn’t just mean ensuring you have a reliable internet connection, but also that your data producing devices communicate using the same language and to the same gateway. I have mainly focussed on connectivity in this article, but that’s only one ingredient for successful ‘Internet of Things’ applications. Unless you are really tech savvy it is often more cost-effective to call in the experts early on. Various providers offer connectivity and integration services. At Inmarsat, we offer a Managed Connectivity Service, a turnkey solution that assesses your data and business needs, brings in the right connectivity mix to transfer it from field to business application and puts all this in a neatly deployable and affordable solution which is managed through a service based contract.

About the Author

Steven Tompkins is the Director of Sector Development Agriculture at Inmarsat.

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