This first trial focuses on the Internet of Things and the possibility of bringing the farm to life through a network of sensors. At our trial sites, we will install sensors onto vehicles, in the field and around the farm. Connecting these to a 5G mast (using NB-IoT) allows for data transfer every ten minutes from the farm to a software platform.
Working with an industry software player, we will build insights designed bespoke for the farmer, meaning that they are able to see the information they need straight away. Additionally, the platform will provide alerts to raise awareness to the farmer of issues around the farm, allowing for them to be resolved before they become problems. Building a database of information will enable farmers to understand correlations between different parameters, allowing for enhanced decision making for the future.
Examples of sensors which might be deployed include fuel trackers, diesel level measurers and grain store monitors. All of these are able to provide valuable information to the farmer to help them make decisions which can help reduce operational costs and improve farm efficiency.
Currently, drones are still a relatively new phenomenon within agriculture. However, drones are gaining traction due to the enhanced insights they are able to build into fields and the environment. Using images from high-spec cameras and intelligent software, farmers are able to get much more detailed information on their field and use comprehensive field maps for variable rate mapping and precision agriculture purposes.
Time is of great value to farmers and to those flying drones. Being able to cover more fields in a day and getting information transferred to the farmer more quickly can greatly help the operating model for drones. We are working with a world-leading agricultural drone company to deliver this trial and we will be looking to reduce the time it takes to get information from the drone to the farmer. Transferring images on-site in near real time will help deliver these advances; making drones a more recognisable part of farm machinery, enabling the benefits that precision agriculture can bring the environment.
Great inroads have been made into monitoring animal behaviour and health in agriculture. A range of organisations offer cow tags and other devices to help a farmer monitor the health of their cattle. Some new technologies have also helped companies offer services using cameras to better understand cows. However, one aspect which is a barrier to a lot of these systems is poor connectivity.
We will be looking to see how 5G might be able to enhance these technologies. Firstly we will install wireless 5G cameras onto our dairy trial site in the field and in the parlour. Using 5G technology we will be able to feed these images live into an AI software platform. Using these algorithms to identify the cow and monitor how it walks, or how healthy it looks, the farmer will be able receive live data in the parlour to take action then and there.
Technology like this can be valuable to the farmer to provide information to potential customers. Not only can this sort of technology make it easier for farmers to make conditions better for their herd, having evidence of good practice and health and happy cattle gives confidence to the customer and the consumer.
The first of our aquaculture trials will look at the benefits of sensor networks within the water. At the trial site in Portland Port there is currently very little information gathered on water parameters and the effect of changes on the seaweed and shellfish grown on the farm.
There are a small and growing number of companies which are developing rugged water sensors which are able to cope in the tough marine environment. Currently transferring information, especially at such remote sites, is a struggle for such companies and often requires expensive systems.
Our trials will look to see how easily 5G might be able to connect sensors in the marine environment and how cost-effective this might be. Having an affordable collection of sensors around the aquaculture operation can bring great benefits to developing an understanding of how to farm in the sea and which species are suitable in specific environments. Some of the parameters we will be measuring include chlorophyll levels, dissolved oxygen and temperature.
It is not only sensors which can bring great information on environmental conditions under the water. Cameras are also a valuable source of data.
Currently cameras are infrequently used and mainly mounted on tethered underwater drones to provide an quick understanding of what it looks like underwater. These trials will go one big step further to gaining a much greater, detailed insight into underwater conditions.
Fixing a camera under the water, we will feed the images remotely from the camera to a software platform. Using AI we hope to be able to build an understanding of seaweed growth rates and measure biofouling on the shellfish and seaweed. This information is valuable to the farmer but also to wider industry players. Being able to correlate this information with the information gathered by the sensors can build new knowledge on how underwater life reacts to changes in the environment.
Maybe the most futuristic trial we will be running is also one of the most exciting. Working with the Small Robot Company, we will be connecting robots to the 5G network at one of our trials site to grow the world’s first completely robot-grown field of wheat.
Robots have a very bright future in agriculture and many think that small fleets of robots will replace the large machinery that we see on the farm today. This could completely revolutionise the way we farm and bring enormous benefits to the environment. Reducing the use of pesticides by improved precision mapping, weeding without the use of herbicides and drilling without compaction and cultivation all can improve biodiversity, soil health and air quality.
Although research into robots in agriculture has been around for a while, 5G and ubiquitous connectivity allows for the potential of reducing the cost of operating the robots. Feeding information to and from the robot in real time can mean more field time and therefore more fields covered in a day. Although it might be a few years until we see robots across the countryside, these trials might well be the launch pad for cost-effective farm robotic systems into the future.