A NEW communications network tailored specifically for the agriculture sector has been launched and its managers are confident it will be of massive use, in spite of the fact it will never carry a phone call or email.
Discovery Ag and National Narrowband Network Co (NNNCo) have launched a joint venture, Connected Country, designed to provide an Internet of Things (IoT) for rural areas and announced at last week’s Australian Farm Institute’s Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture conference in Melbourne.
IoT refers to the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.
For agriculture, the Rural IoT Network will provide the backbone infrastructure for secure, standards based shared networks of low-cost wireless sensors that constantly report on essential farm metrics like soil moisture, rainfall, crop health, water levels and livestock data.
“This private infrastructure project is initially about building the enabling technology to make the IoT viable for Australian agriculture,” said Discovery Ag chief executive Alicia Garden.
“No-one has been willing or able to deliver such a solution on this scale before and we see it as a major step in helping ensure regional communities are connected and able to improve the way they do business.”
While nationwide coverage is the aim in the long-term, initially the network will begin in the NSW Central West, with 400,000ha in the Macquarie Valley, Hilltops and Lockhart regions earmarked for the initial roll-out and work already starting near Young.
Ms Garden said one of the key capabilities of the network was the fact it not only provided information to users, they in turn were able to act on it, for example using the system to turn on and off multiple switches driving functions like irrigation, livestock feed stations, water pumps and emergency signals.
“The decisions farmers make about when and where to irrigate, what to plant in which paddock, use of chemicals and fertilisers, and when to harvest can have a huge bearing on their annual production. If we can help them make better decisions across multiple aspects of farm management, the productivity gains will be significant.”
Until now, the widespread use of sensors has been constrained by the cost of transmitting data over existing networks — and the fact significant areas of agricultural land did not have adequate network coverage.
NNNCo is behind the technology driving the project and chief executive officer Robert Zagarella said the impact on price would be one of the big wins for producers.
"The network will significantly drive down the cost of connection for data communication and the cost of sensors using this technology,” he said.
“Connected Country uses the Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) system, which is like packet delivery by bicycle: it’s cheap and efficient, and it keeps IoT traffic off the more expensive data networks we need to communicate.”
Ms Garden said the network also used open standard technologies, so it could be joined by anyone at any time, but at the same time was designed to ensure tight data privacy.
She said she saw big applications for the technology in industry segments such as viticulture and livestock, where crop or animal input requirements can be managed via the system.
“The decisions farmers make about when and where to irrigate, what to plant in which paddock, use of chemicals and fertilisers, and when to harvest can have a huge bearing on their annual production,” she said.
“You could see real savings in allowing previous manual jobs to be automated, such as switching irrigation systems on and off.”
In the livestock industry, she said farmers would be able to remotely monitor where their animals were in real time.
Ms Garden said the two joint venture partners hoped that by bringing prices down, farmers would be able to use more of particular technologies, such as sensors.
“There has been a lot of research into precision agriculture and all the findings have been that the connectivity bottle neck is what is slowing down uptake.
“What this system will do is remove that impediment.”