Much has been written about the digital divide, and usually when it comes to connectivity, rural areas have been given short shrift. Although virtually all urban areas are connected, creating the infrastructure to bring Internet connectivity to every resident of remote communities has historically been too expensive. Around the world, many rural areas face challenges related to geography, population density, and deployment costs that make it unprofitable and unappealing for companies to expand or operate networks.
Hungry for broadband
However, this lack of high-speed broadband connections comes with high economic, social, and educational costs for people in rural areas. Much of the innovation that has propelled success in industries ranging from automotive to retail have bypassed agriculture, largely because of something farmers can’t control: the availability of decent broadband.
Many people don’t think about big data in terms of farming, but every planting date, seed, raindrop, soil test result, and location in a field represents a data point that could be analyzed. Today’s farmers may read about new tech like robots, self-driving tractors, or drones, but without connectivity, none of it can happen.
5G and food
Although most of the focus on the “fifth generation” 5G technology has been connecting urban areas, Cisco has been working with a consortium of partners in the UK on an initiative called 5G RuralFirst. The project has demonstrated how it’s possible to bring high-speed networks to even the most remote and challenging rural locations economically and as result can transform agriculture over the next decade.
Led by Cisco alongside principal partner University of Strathclyde, the first goal of the project has created rural test-beds and trials for 5G wireless and mobile connectivity across three main sites in the Orkney Islands, Shropshire, and Somerset. Like many rural areas, the UK doesn’t have good connectivity in rural areas. In fact, only 63% of the UK has mobile data coverage.
Connecting the unconnected and underconnected with 5G
The 5G RuralFirst initiative is focusing on seven different projects to show the range of benefits of 5G. The Arigitech project tests the potential of 5G technologies to improve how farms grow crops and look after livestock. The term agritech refers to the use of technology in agriculture to improve yield, efficiency, and profitability. One of the Agritech tests in process involves cows.
Connecting dairy cows
At the government-funded Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre in Shepton Mallet, a farm has put 5G collars and tags on one-third of their 180 diary cows. Using the connected collars, the farmer can keep track of the eating pattern, rumination, fertility, and day-to-day health of each specific cow. The collar also detects when an individual cow ovulates, so the farmer can optimize the timing of insemination, maximize the potential for pregnancy, and milk yield.
The 5G smart collars also help automate milking by wirelessly communicating with a robotic milking system. Without any human intervention, cows can walk up to the milking station and hook up to the milking robot. As a cow steps into one of the robotic milkers, sensors recognize the animal, record her health and fertility status and know how much milk she is expected to give. The robotic system also provides the cow with a food reward.
The second phase of the connected cow project adds a pedometer that will help score the mobility of each cow. Ideally, cows should lie down and rest for 10-14 hours per day. Getting enough rest reduces the risk of lameness, increases blood flow to the udder, and decreases stress hormones. Not surprisingly, healthy well-rested cows produce more milk. With the pedometer tags, farmers will gain better visibility into the health of their cows, so they can better manage the herd.
Using 5G, data is picked up directly from the sensors on the cows, bypassing the need for a desktop computer on the farm. The data goes directly to the cloud where it can be combined with other relevant data and sent to farm staff. With 5G, this data round trip takes only milliseconds, so the staff can make instant, informed decisions about the welfare and management of their cows.
Healthy food is good for everyone
Technology that can monitor the health of animals and their environment makes it easier for farmers to keep track of their health and welfare, even over large remote areas. This tracking is good for the welfare of the animals, but also benefits farmers economically. And of course, it benefits those of us who want to eat good, healthy food.
Reimagine what’s possible
5G RuralFirst shows us that we can and should develop 5G technologies across the rural areas of the US and other countries. The project introduced innovative 5G stand-alone service at fractions of the cost of traditional mobile networks. New virtualized and cloud-native solutions along with advanced automation greatly reduce how long it takes to implement services and the total cost of ownership. For more information about the 5G RuralFirst project, 5G, and related topics please visit:
— Dan Kurschner, 5G and SP Mobility Marketing lead in Cisco Global Service Provider Marketing
— Susan Daffron, Technical Storyteller for Global Service Provider Marketing at Cisco
This content is sponsored by Cisco.