Agtech needs satellite networks to fulfil its potential

As more farming machinery is incorporated with ‘smart’ capabilities, connectivity will become a bigger issue given farms are based in remote locations. Inmarsat’s Tregg Spolar says satellite networks could be the answer.

The global AgTech market is booming. The industry is currently worth over $20 billion and is set to surpass $40 billion by 2030.

According to research from Inmarsat that looked at the internet of things’ role in accelerating sustainable action, over three quarters of more than 1,000 surveyed agriculture firms (77 percent) believe connected IoT solutions are critical to boosting commercial results and 80 percent think they are key to improving operational efficiencies.

However, some regions where there is significant scope for agtech growth based on market demand have very limited cellular connectivity, for example the American Corn Belt and Matto Grasso in Brazil. Without alternative connectivity options, agtech solutions risk being held back from reaching their full potential, to the detriment of farmers, the tech providers, agriculture investors and consumers.

Promisingly, a third of respondents (34 percent) said they were already using satellite networks to meet the IoT connectivity needs of their agtech devices, and this is expected to soar to 59 percent over the next 10 years.

Whether looking to improve operational efficiencies, boost profitability or ensure better sustainable outcomes, satellite connectivity provides a flexible, cost-effective solution for agriculture firms looking to utilize connected agtech devices to grow and thrive – and will be key to unlocking the full potential of these solutions over the coming years.

Satellite-connected IoT in action

From remote monitoring to process automation, there is a range of use cases for connected IoT devices within the agriculture industry. Those that operate in the most remote, rural areas often have the most to gain from such solutions, however they are also more likely to struggle to access reliable terrestrial connectivity.

For those unable to secure reliable connectivity, it can be very costly to try to provide general internet coverage throughout their entire estate (private networks are expensive to build and maintain), so it is better to only connect the devices that they really need. This is where flexible satellite connectivity comes in.

For example, driverless tractors are becoming increasingly commercialized as a solution to address labor shortages facing the agriculture industry, as well as helping to manage crops with greater precision and improve farm safety.

Many agricultural vehicles need to be automated ‘on the edge’ or within the machine itself to avoid transmission delays, with satellite providing vital back-up connectivity if the primary method were to cut out. Farmers wanting the peace of mind that comes with being able to take control of such machines remotely, would use satellite to log in as and when required.

For example, Inmarsat’s ELERA network is suited to such use cases as it works well with small-form, robust terminals that can be mounted directly on vehicles, and does not need to be connected to the network 24/7.

Broader use cases for this kind of technology include autosteer and positioning tools – the foundation technology for driverless tractors – which are already being used by thousands of famers around the world. Such technology enables automated seed planting, crop protection and even harvesting processes, improving operational efficiencies, freeing up time for farmers to focus on other tasks and reducing material waste.

Multiple GPS satellites and a network of ground stations ensure a high degree of accuracy when tracking such machines. L-band satellite networks, like ELERA, then take these tracking readings and transmit them back to the machine to enable it to pinpoint exactly where it is in the field. For such technology to work well, accurate triangulation of the machine’s precise location and the reliability of satellite networks sending that information is fundamental.

Precision tools

Beyond self-driving and positioning tools, satellite-connected IoT networks can also support precision monitoring and automation of other key processes across the agriculture industry. Moisture sensors, for instance, can be used to measure the percentage of water in soil, helping farmers make more accurate decisions on whether to water or irrigate their crops, optimising crop production, reducing waste and supporting better sustainable outcomes.

For example, Inmarsat works with Australia-based remote water monitoring firm, Farmbot, to provide farmers with a cost-effective and easy to use solution to better manage their water usage. As well as giving farmers insights to run their farms more efficiently, it also give them peace of mind through real-time reporting on water usage and trends.

Similarly, Inmarsat works with MinFarm Tech, an engineering satellite communications business to enable farmers to remotely monitor soil moisture levels to help them make more efficient, effective decisions regarding irrigation timings to promote better crop yields and quality.

New technology is also being introduced in this area to help monitor for diseases and the presence of pests in crops to enable more effective use of pesticides as needed. Such solutions enable farmers to reap the rewards from remote monitoring and control of assets by reducing labor costs and time to manually carry out these functions, as well as allowing a higher level of detail and analysis to support better business decisions.

Again, satellite plays an important role in providing a cost-effective method of connectivity that can be tailored based on how often the farmer needs access to these monitoring and automation tools and their required latency levels.

Deploying satellite connectivity to turbocharge your investment

Evidently, the scope for agtech development over the coming decade is immense. However, as businesses and investors alike look to leverage such solutions to improve productivity and profitability, it is vital they ensure the solutions they are exploring are satellite-enabled upfront.

Whether using satellite networks as a back-up to terrestrial connectivity for peace of mind, or for access to a system that is always on and has highly reliable connectivity in the remotest of locations, checking preferred technologies are satellite-enabled before investing in them is where the smart money is.

As adoption of IoT solutions increases over the coming years, agriculture firms will reap the rewards of having more actionable data to help make smarter decisions. This data will help reduce labor costs, improve staff productivity, minimize water wasteage and provide detailed information on how to manage wider resources to more effectively mitigate the effects of climate change and extreme weather patterns.

With a significant proportion of agriculture firms expected to turn to satellite networks to support their IoT and agtech needs in the near future, time is of the essence to ensure your firm is not left behind.

Tregg Spolar is market development manager at Inmarsat.