India is the second largest producer of wheat and rice, the world’s main staple foods. Agriculture is the backbone of India’s economy and has recorded impressive growth over the past few decades.
Especially in the Indian context, agriculture and health are crucial sectors. The real impact of 5G on the common man will be through the digital transformation of the agriculture and health sectors. 5G technology will disrupt the agricultural sector for the benefit of the masses. Although 60% of our country’s workforce works in agriculture, agriculture’s contribution to GDP is only 18%. Few of the inefficiencies in the current agricultural system can be solved through technology.
5G will revolutionize the agricultural sector by achieving precision agriculture, obtaining the best realization of costs, optimizing the use of agricultural and animal resources, ensuring intelligent management and guaranteeing the best price for end users. 5G-enabled drones can be deployed for farm remote sensing and fertilizer/pesticide/insecticide spraying.
Network Program on Precision Agriculture (NePPA)
ICAR (Indian Council of Agriculture Research) has launched this ambitious network program on precision agriculture encompassing crop health, soil health, post-harvest management, fisheries and animal husbandry. One of the objectives of this program is to develop variable rate technologies (VRT) for the management of site-specific inputs.
The VRT is a tool that allows farmers to apply fertilizers, water, pesticides and seeds at different rates across the field. In this technology, 5G-powered sensors measure soil properties or crop characteristics in real time. The control system then calculates the amount of inputs needed. The benefits of using this technology are increased production, environmental preservation and cost reduction.
Precision farming is a strategy for improving productivity. This strategy increases accuracy, precision and throughput at all levels with reduced cost and labor through automation, remote sensing, data analysis and use disruptive innovations like 5G. The objectives are profitability, environmental preservation and sustainability. The application of 5G in agriculture is the use of 5G-powered modular IOT (Internet of Things) gateways that can monitor climate, vehicles used in agriculture, animal husbandry, soil moisture , plant health, pest control and water supply control, etc.
Using 5G-enabled IOT devices, data from many sources is collected, updated frequently, and sent to the cloud in real time. In the cloud, data is analyzed using AI/ML algorithms to present actionable insights to farmers. Sources can be soil moisture, weather conditions, seed genetics, crop condition, plant health, historical yields, soil pH level, crop prices collected in the market, etc
Actionable information can be
• What crop to plant?
• What type of seed to plant? When to plant?
• What type of fertilizer is suitable? How much fertilizer to apply and when?
• What pests infest the field? Which phytosanitary products to apply and in what quantity?
• Is the field getting enough water? When should the field be irrigated and how much?
• When to harvest?
• When to sell crops? Who to sell the crops to?
The different use cases of 5G in animal husbandry and agriculture:
• Smart farming: Smart farming, powered by 5G-enabled IOT devices, will ensure better agricultural production.
• Drones: Remote sensing from drones fills the gaps in satellite and ground-based remote sensing. 5G-enabled drones, equipped with multispectral sensors, can be used to analyze crop nutrient status through digital soil mapping. This data is integrated with weather and other agronomic information to apply an optimal amount of fertilizer precisely to a specified area.
The drones scan and detect pests, diseases and weeds and apply pesticides to target areas after the data has been analyzed by an AI algorithm.
20% of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions come from agriculture. Strict laws are there to reduce soil nutrient loss and chemical use by 50%. Chemical usage can be reduced by 15%, with no yield impact, by deploying 5G-powered drones as described above.
Drones can collect and provide information on field status and crop stage. As 5G supports high bandwidth, 5G-enabled drones can collect high-resolution quality video data and relay it faster. Experts in drone operation sitting in remote places operate these drones and farmers can benefit from it.
• Autonomous Farm Vehicles: Farmers can monitor tractor status from their mobile phone which provides live tractor images and data. Tractors can be equipped with 5G-enabled devices that allow operators to remotely adjust tractor speed, depth of soil penetration and distance between seed rows. Driverless farm equipment will provide more flexibility and efficiency and reduce labor costs.
• Livestock monitoring and management: India has more than 30 million head of cattle and is the country that consumes the most dairy products. But the productivity of our livestock is less. The daily milk yield per cattle is 4 to 6 liters while it is 30 to 40 liters in Israel. Technology can help increase livestock productivity. Every year, farmers lose significant sums due to animal diseases. Using 5G-enabled detection devices, farmers can monitor pests and diseases in farm animals and take action.
These sensor devices can be attached to the animal’s ear and breeders can tell remotely if the animal is in heat or sick. Sensors can be fixed on its belly to know the quality of its digestive system. Animal behavior, health, feeding habits, feed and water quality, hygiene levels can be monitored. Their location on the farm can be tracked and traced. Livestock breeding cycles and the calving process can be tracked for safer and more successful deliveries.
• Precision Aquaculture: Using 5G powered sensors, pH value of water, water level, DO (dissolved oxygen) in water, temperature, etc. can be remotely monitored in real time by the farmer, and a better environment can be created in the aquaculture ponds to increase the yield.
• Weather stations: 5G-enabled weather stations can help farmers monitor their farm’s specific wind speed, wind direction, temperature, relative humidity, sun exposure and atmospheric pressure real.
• ICT-enabled information flow from farmers to markets: through 5G technology, combined with blockchain technology, the flow of products from farmers to markets (especially perishable products) can be tracked by scanning barcodes/RFID (radio frequency identification) on them.
In short, data acquisition using 5G-enabled drones, data analysis (using AI/ML algorithms, data analysis and real-time data processing in the cloud), consulting (optimization of operations on-farm based on data analysis) and on-farm activation (triggering 5G-enabled machines and robots on the farm based on advice) are part of digital farming.
Global food production is expected to increase by 70% to meet growing demand. Agriculture is in the early days of another revolution. By 2025, the amount of data generated by IOT devices deployed on farms will be 55%. Data, 5G connectivity, AI, data analytics, and sensors can increase yields, reduce water and other input requirements, and build sustainability and resilience in crop and livestock production.
While the application of 5G to disrupt agriculture in our country is promising, there are some challenges and one of them is the small land size in our country. The average size of land holdings in our country is comparatively smaller than in other countries and stands at less than 2 hectares. In addition, 33% of farming households own less than 0.4 hectares of land. This factor must be taken into account when implementing 5G solutions in the agriculture of our country.
(The author is a former adviser to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Government of India)