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How the agtech industry is dealing with connectivity issues

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WHILE the livestock industry is increasingly reliant on technology to automate tasks and improve production systems, connectivity is still proving to be an issue for the growing agritech industry.

The sector has promised a lot over the past five years, with dozens of start-ups springing up and presenting themselves to the industry. While some products have been more successful than others, companies and producers have had to look far to resolve connectivity issues.

Last week’s ‘Big Tech, Big Ideas’ conference in Dubbo put the viability of installing new technologies on farms under the microscope, highlighting many opportunities and obstacles.

One of the presentations was made by Meat & Livestock Australia’s Digital Agriculture Project Manager John McGuren – which showcased some of the results of the Smart Farms program, where all sorts of technologies were tested on working ranching properties. He said connectivity was always a barrier to implementing new technologies.

“Recent studies have confirmed that Australian agriculture has yet to reach the connectivity thresholds needed to meet its growing digital needs,” Mr McGuren said.

“Most operations require mixed technology solutions to fill the gaps.”

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network is a product many in the agtech industry are watching, with the promise of delivering much faster bandwidth with lower latency than existing rural internet services.

Mr McGuren said Starlink was having a positive impact where it was used.

“It appears to provide low-cost high-speed internet to remote locations,” he said.

“IOT sensors and devices on the farm can be deployed on local area networks such as LoRaWAN, which is usually reasonably cost effective. But at some point you will need internet access in the form of a mobile phone or satellite connection for larger amounts of data, so you can view the data in dashboards on your tablet or phone.

Data solution for paddock weighing

Northern New South Wales grower and owner of Optiweigh Bill Mitchell said his company had worked hard to find a suitable connectivity solution. The product is configured to weigh cattle in the paddock and send the information back to the producer.

“We started by using a USB key to take the data, which was hopeless because the last thing you want to do is go down to the paddock and grab the USB key when the agent is on the phone,” Ms. Mitchell.

“Invariably we would ask people for the data and they would forget the USB drive or drop it when they were there.”

Bill Mitchell

The company has machines all over the country, including in remote parts of the North. Mr Mitchell said the only way to make the device practical was to connect it to the “cloud”.

“We tested so many different services, but the most significant breakthrough was signing with a company called ‘Swarm,’ which is a low-cost satellite network,” he said.

“Each unit now has satellite technology for the price of mobile phone service. They receive an email every morning telling them the weight of their cattle.

Devices need to communicate with each other

While many were clamoring for better internet services or needing to find ways around poor connectivity, McGuren said connecting devices on the farm was also important.

“Technology vendors need to find commercially viable ways to work together,” he said.

“They need to be able to provide easy-to-use solutions for the farmer and leverage multiple data sources.”

Mr McGuren said the “digital revolution” presented a big opportunity for agriculture, but several factors were needed to make it happen.

“The technology is largely there and improving every day, noting that we need to work on improving connectivity,” he said.

“The regulatory environment will need to be increasingly responsive to evolving technologies – autonomous vehicles, including the use of drones.

“Farming systems need to adapt new ways of working and build capacity to benefit from them and ultimately they need to benefit people.”