We spoke with Umberto Ferrero, TIM’s VP of 5G and Digital Transformation, to discuss the ways in which 5G can help reimagine the agricultural sector, from inreasing efficiency to novel use cases
Back in February, TIM announced a new strategic plan for 2021–2023 called ‘Beyond Connectivity’, part of which involved exploring connectivity opportunities beyond the traditional telco space. One such sector that presents a myriad of opportunities is agriculture, where the deployment of 5G can help farmers to not only improve their crop yields and operational efficiency,
However, building relationships new partners and exploring new verticals is no easy task for a telco, and the agricultural sector is no exception.
Agriculture, naturally, is a very special industry for Italy. From wines to cheese, this is a country that takes food and drink very seriously and renowned for its quality produce throughout the world. But while the production of these products is steeped in tradition, digitalisation is transforming the industry rapidly, presenting new challenges – but also new solutions – for the modern agriculturalist.
“In Italy, and in general in southern Europe, this industry is very important,” said Umberto. “Digitalisation is a challenge everywhere, but for agriculture it comes with very specific challenges.”
For Umberto, these challenges can be split into three main categories – efficiency, sustainability, and quality – all of which are deeply interrelated and can benefit from improved connectivity infrastructure.
Take quality, for example. From the quality of the soil or the food fed to livestock, to ensuring their goods remain in pristine condition when they arrive to their customers, quality assurance is paramount throughout the agricultural process. However, in an industry of this scale, monitoring individual goods throughout their lifecycle is an enormous task, taking thousands of man-hours and, even then, lacking precision.
However, by deploying and making use of a 5G network, one potential solution to this challenge is utilising smart sensors to monitor various metrics throughout a products life cycle in real-time, from air and soil quality to ambient temperature. In this way, goods can be monitored effectively and efficiently from soil to table.
“The ability to be able to track the life cycle of goods and certify the data [using blockchain] is very important to quality assurance,” explained Umberto.
This concept of gathering of data on a large scale and analysing that information with the help of AI is at the heart of the digital transformation the agricultural sector is currently experiencing. These AI-driven insights and automation will allow for major gains in efficiency and a reduction of wasted resources, which, in turn, can reduce the sector’s environmental impact.
“When it comes to sustainability, in the agriculture sector you can do a lot to save water, to save seeds, to reduce pesticides, to reduce pollution, and, in general terms, reduce environmental impact,” noted Umberto.
But why is 5G itself so integral to this process?
Unlocking agriculture with 5G: From drones to remote driving
5G’s potential uses go far beyond a network of smart sensors. More simply a faster mobile connection, 5G technology’s unique capabilities are unlocking various novel technologies that simply were not possible on 4G infrastructure.
“Starting with the basics of 5G – the extra bandwidth, low latency, and hyper-dense Internet of Things (IoT) – there are number of new platforms that an operator can develop,” explained Umberto. “For example, we are dealing with robotics and of course the first type of robot is the drone because of its greater potential and maturity.”
These drones can be used to observe vast areas quickly and in minute detail, recording data that is immediately qualified by 5G-powered AI. This not only generates unique insights into the health of crops, but saves a significant amount of time, allowing the farmer to monitor large areas remotely.
This concept of remote operation can be extended even further, in future potentially allowing for remote-operated or even completely autonomous vehicles to till the soil, plant seeds, and water crops, and doing so with much greater precision than previously available.
“Obviously you will need extra security and extra performance from the network, but possibility to remotely drive a car — or, more specifically, a tractor or a similar agricultural machine — is a very intriguing opportunity,” said Umberto.
5G in action
As part of TIM’s ‘Beyond Connectivity’ strategy, the operator is already working with a number Italian agricultural partners to explore 5G’s potential for the industry.
For example, in the Piedmont Langhe region in northern Italy, an area famous for its wines and cheeses, especially Barolo, TIM has joined with winemaker Voerzio Martini to complete proof of concept with some of these 5G-powered technologies.
“What we did was cover the area with 5G to integrate drones, capturing images from the area in order to measure the health of the vineyard,” Umberto explained. “We collected data from a number of sensors, in terms of humidity, temperature, wind, and so on, and also implemented blockchain to certify and secure that data. This data is then sent to the cloud where machine learning and artificial intelligence can elaborate on the status of the vineyard, allowing the vineyard owner to devise a better strategy and optimise production.”
In a separate project, in a cornfield in the south of Italy near Matera, TIM is also testing remote driving of farm tractors. These modified tractors can offer numerous benefits in terms of efficiency, maintenance, and precision.
“This is what is often known as ‘precision farming’,” explained Umberto. “Where you need centimetre-precision to place the seeds, water, nutrients, etc, in the right place.”
Agriculture’s smarter future
Despite 5G deployments taking place rapidly in various markets around the world, the technology is still very much in its infancy and widespread adoption by various industries, including agriculture, will be gradual. Nonetheless, as TIM is demonstrating, the possibilities related to 5G are significant, with regular technical breakthroughs driving innovation in the agricultural space and beyond. As always, it will be the first adopters of these new technologies that gain the largest benefits. In 5G, much like in agriculture itself, you reap what you sow.
“New things are just around the corner,” said Umberto. “New sensors are becoming available, artificial intelligence is improving, and, last but not least, self-driving machines will increasingly be able to support agriculture. And, of course, all of this is supported by remote experts using network virtual infrastructure.”
“Transformation is starting, and we have very exciting years ahead.”
You can watch the full interview with Umberto from the link above.
Want to hear more from Umberto on the topic of 5G? You can join him and a panel of industry experts at this year’s virtual 5GLIVE conference, this time to discuss the topic of delivering 5G-enabled services in healthcare. Check out 5GLIVE’s exciting agenda and register for the event for free here.