5G in agriculture: How smart farming is transforming the oldest industry

From autonomous tractors to drones and robots, the digital revolution of one of the oldest jobs in the world is on track. And 5G has everything to do with it.

Farming is at the heart of human survival, yet it’s astounding that two decades into the 21st century agriculture remains hugely dependent on manual labor. 5G in agriculture is changing that by supporting the automation of repetitive and labor-intensive tasks, potentially beginning a new era in the history of modern farming.

Sustainability has never been more critical than now, and smart farming may play a key role in food crop production. Leveraging a combination of 5G, edge computing and artificial intelligence (AI) that allows for connectivity at a higher speed with lower latency, smart farming could become a game changer as we face a crossroads in resources and production.

A whole new approach to leveraging the field

There are several key factors driving the problems in 21st-century food production. Farming in 2019 cost an estimated $350 billion in the United States, up 1.1% from 2018, and is expected to climb. Demand is rising while natural resources diminish. Food security is a growing challenge in the face of climate change. Crops are extremely vulnerable to greenhouse gas emissions, which raise global temperature, increase pest and weed infestation, and alter precipitation patterns. All of these challenges can lead to reduced crop yields.

“Smart farming could become a game changer as we face a crossroads in resources and production.”

Moreover, as climate change affects the land and weather, the global population is expected to increase to over 9 billion people by mid-century. Despite this growing need to adequately feed people, food waste is a significant problem, with only 14% of food produced reaching consumers. How best to implement practices to reduce food waste is up in the air, and there are obstacles at every level of the supply chain from the farmer to the consumer. Considerations include preserving and packaging food, transportation, grocery store shelf life, consumer demand and even consumer meal planning.

More than two years into the pandemic, we are seeing rising prices at the grocery store due to inflation, high consumer demand and disruptions in supply chains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that in 2022, supermarket items will increase between 1.5–2.5%; processed fruits and vegetable prices alone are expected to jump between 2–3% this year. Dining out will cost more, too, as restaurants and hotels recalibrate demand as COVID-19 continues to interrupt services.

More people to feed with fewer natural resources and manual labor requires thinking outside the box, which is paving the way for 5G in agriculture.

The dawn of “agritech” and smart farming

5G is poised to transform agriculture as we know it. Companies are developing smart farming systems that can benefit from 5G, AI and edge computing, including John Deere’s self-propelled tractor that made big waves at CES this year. 5G combined with other technologies will also make farming more precise, using customized, data-driven approaches to farm management instead of outdated, one-size-fits-all thinking for crop yield, water and pesticide use, and waste management.

Unveiled in January of 2022, John Deere’s fully autonomous tractor is equipped with six pairs of stereo cameras using AI, enabling 360-degree obstacle detection, geo-awareness and the calculation of distance. The farmer simply has to set up the tractor in a field for autonomous operations and then can operate it via a mobile app while focusing on other tasks. The app provides access to live video, images, data and metrics while allowing the farmer to adjust speed and depth. In case of any anomalies, the farmer will be notified to make adjustments to optimize the performance of the machine.

Set to reach farmers later this year, the tractor’s widespread use will be dependent on connectivity, which is where 5G technology comes in. Deanna Kovar, the Vice President of Production and Precision Ag Production Systems at John Deere, spoke at CES 2022 about the importance of 5G in its autonomous efforts.

Farming stands to become more precise and less labor intensive with the success of 5G-fueled autonomous tractors. Currently, the autonomous tractors can operate within a range of wide or narrow spaces, spraying, mowing and disking. Converting farms’ existing tractor fleets into robotic, data-driven tractors could vastly improve productivity, while reducing the dependency on manual labor, human error, and equipment and production costs. Autonomous tractors also protect farmers from harmful chemicals, possible accidents and other occupational hazards.

Other examples of smart technology transforming farming that could benefit from 5G include cellular-connected drones and robots equipped with cameras, which can be used to quickly inspect large expanses of land to closely monitor crop fields and cattle. Automating the large-scale collection of detailed information, which farmers in the past would have collected by hand, saves time for less laborious tasks, while also opening up new opportunities for more resilient crops in the future.

Israel-startup Taranis images whole fields down to leaf level with light sport aircraft and drones. It maintains its ultra-high resolution at speeds of 100 mph, rapidly identifying zones in need of attention. By running granular field-level weather forecasts, it also recommends the most effective time to apply treatments or the best planting window.

EarthSense has produced a ground robot, called the TerraSentia, which uses a mix of sensors—including visual cameras, light detecting and ranging (LIDAR) tools and GPS devices—to collect data on plant health, physiology and stress responses. Collecting under-canopy data and insights, it can scan 10 plants a second. Its cloud-based platform also enables crop scientists to teach the robot to automatically measure a range of key traits like height, condition and leaf-area index.

The higher speed and lower latency of 5G can enable near real-time data transfer, which helps to ensure the safe use of robotics to improve the efficiency of crop management. Paired with reliable cellular connectivity and IoT technology, 5G can help “agritech” achieve its ultimate goal—to make farmers’ work easier and more informed.

Infinite potential

Preliminary metrics comparing crops that used 5G-powered smart farming against those using conventional methods won’t be available for a few more years, as more farms test what’s possible in what is a seismic shift from manual to digital. However, the possibilities for improving operations and efficiencies are very promising: using data for diagnostics and treatment of fields, automating repetitive and unsafe tasks, even calculating potential problems and implementing prevention techniques to keep crops safe from weather and pests.

Not keeping pace with changing times isn’t an option. Farms are evolving, whether we like it or not, to meet our needs of the future. Innovative technology and data can create more resilient and sustainable crops and help ensure that food insecurity becomes a thing of the past.