What type of connectivity is right for me?

Dr Hugo Britt continues his two part series on connectivity in Australian agriculture by delving into the different options available for growers. Read part 1 here.

connectivity ag tech hugo britt

Without connectivity, there can be no digital enablement across Australian orchards. Growers who are looking to invest in AgTech and reap the benefits of real-time data must first ensure their property has adequate coverage that will reach every sensor, no matter how far they may be located from your main buildings.

KPMG’s latest report, Agri 4.0: Connectivity at our Fingertips, reveals that technology providers have now reached a stage where they’re able to provide connectivity to just about every Australian farmer, no matter how remote their properties may be. The challenge, according to the report’s authors, lies in the range of different protocols (connectivity solutions) and the bewildering digital lingo used in the sector.

While there are an enormous number of connectivity options pitched at the agricultural community, a thorough understanding of your business needs and individual requirements will help growers narrow down the solutions available. There is no one-size-fits-all. Just some of the factors to consider are coverage, battery life, service quality, interoperability, latency, scalability, device availability, upgradability, maintainability, redundancy, and cost.

This article will summarise the benefits and disadvantages of the three connectivity options detailed in KPMG’s report.

Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN)

LPWAN refers to technology that connects IoT devices (such as moisture sensors) to a network that is beyond the reach of Bluetooth and WiFi. LPWAN is available in two formats:

  • Unlicensed: Piggybacks on a public spectrum that can be used by anyone. Users may not have to pay a data fee (depending on the network provider). Options include LoRaWAN (a deploy-your-own-network model) with low upfront costs for hardware installation and no subscription costs for public connection. Sigfox is a subscription model with monthly payment per device, and can use existing infrastructure if in range, or growers can deploy their own gateway (tower).
  • Licensed: Uses existing Telco infrastructure, which means no installation costs if inside network range. A telco will charge you for data usage on their radio spectrum. Licensed LPWAN such as Narrowband (NB-IoT) and Cat M1 can transmit small data packets 20km+, with modest subscription fees. KPMG states that Cat M1 is better suited to moving sensors (wearables such as phones), while NB-IoT is better suited to sensors sending smaller packets of data more infrequently.

Benefits:

  • Low upfront costs for hardware installation
  • No or low subscription costs
  • Very long battery life (5 to 10+ years)
  • Transmission range of 5 to 50km, depending on topography.

Disadvantages:

  • Typically used for low data rate transfers, making them appropriate for use-cases where only small packets of data (such as the data from a moisture sensor) need to be sent. Higher bandwidth cases including voice calls, imagery or video will need a different connectivity option such as on-farm WiFi.
  • AgTech device availability for LPWAN in Australia is still at an immature stage.

Nanosatellite connectivity

Satellite is particularly applicable in remote locations or for intermittent data transfer needs. The technology uses low-earth-orbit nanosatellites to provide IoT connectivity and is a viable solution where there is no other option.

Benefits:

  • Provides connectivity to properties beyond the reach of all other connectivity options.
  • No need for ground-based infrastructure.
  • A newly emerging LoRaWAN/Satellite hybrid solution combines the benefits of the two technologies.

Disadvantages:

  • Costs are typically higher than other connectivity options.

On-Farm WiFi

This technology, familiar to urban consumers, is the most suitable when it comes to use cases such as transmitting voice, imagery and video. On-Farm WiFi (or “Wireless Mesh”) provides growers with coverage across their properties and uses repeaters to extend an existing connection beyond the immediate vicinity of the farm building.

Benefits:

  • The best technology for high-bandwidth voice, image and video transmission (such as a video surveillance system).

 Disadvantages:

  • Generally impractical due to power consumption impacting IoT sensor battery life.
  • Lower range than LPWANs, although solutions such as Digital Drift can extend an existing WiFi network to sensors on the property using coaxial cable as an extension mechanism for distances of up to 200 metres. KPMG warns that cables risk being cut or trampled in some environments.

Keep in mind that costs for any of the above connectivity options can be reduced by co-investing with neighbours.

 

About the Author:

APAL is an industry representative body and not-for-profit membership organisation that supports Australia’s commercial apple and pear growers.