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5 tech trends coming to a farm near you

This week, over 100,000 people have converged on Barcelona for one of the biggest events on the tech calendar. Among them is the NFF’s Charlie Thomas, looking at how these innovations may come to intersect with agriculture.

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) is one of the world’s premier technology events – bringing together 100,000 attendees, 3,600 exhibitors, and thought leaders from multiple fields. Don’t be fooled by the name, this is not just about mobile phones. The event plays host to every major tech company (with the notable exception of Apple), but also showcases innovation in more traditional sectors like automotive, agriculture, banking and more.

What better place to see the major tech trends, and understand how these ideas might influence the farm sector in years to come? After a day immersing myself at MWC, a few things really have tongues wagging in the tech world. Here is my take on the top 5…

1. 5G is coming, and it is REALLY fast

While this might seem cruel to those still waiting for any mobile coverage, telcos are pushing ahead with an even faster iteration of wireless technology called 5G.

It is immensely fast, with download rates in excess of 20 gigabytes per second (for context, the entry level NBN satellite plan allows users to access 75 gigabytes in a month). Perhaps more importantly, it will reduce the transmission delay between devices (known as ‘latency’), and connect thousands more gadgets per square kilometer.

Standards for the deployment of 5G are currently being finalised, and carriers are hoping to deploy new 5G networks from 2020 onwards. The option to use 5G to connect superfast broadband to the home will be a game changer for many Australians who miss out on the NBN fiber network.

2. Superfast wireless paves the way for automation

Why could we possibly need so many phones connected at such high speeds? We perhaps don’t, but our phones are no longer the only devices using the network. An important driver of 5G development is, well, to get rid of drivers! Reducing latency and increasing bandwidth are the ingredients for safe autonomous motoring.

And it’s not just cars going driverless – many exhibitors at MWC are exploring how this technology can be applied to driverless tractors and other heavy vehicles like trucks. Drones, too, will be a big beneficiary of 5G networks which can be used to safely communicate over larger distances.

Of course, realising these benefits in the farm sector will depend on the rollout of 5G in regional areas, but the transformative potential of this technology means efforts to expand coverage in the bush are more important now than ever.

Windows and drivers are a thing of the past, according to this concept vehicle.

3. The Internet of Things is a big thing

Heard of the Internet of Things (IoT)? It’s what happens when everyday objects get the ability to send and receive data – think connected rain gauges or gates with sensors on them.

MWC is full of people with an idea for how we can leverage these new sources of data to make better decisions and, accordingly, more money.

Nowhere is this more true than in agriculture. The tech world is abuzz with new ideas to better inform people making decisions on-farm - from GPS-enabled tail tags for cows, to automatic irrigation systems.

NB-IoT coverage will make it affordable to connect vast numbers of sensors to the internet, with battery life in excess of 10 years. It will be a game changer in the way we collect and analyse farm data.
Charles Thomas, National Farmers' Federation

While these might be fine ideas, they can’t happen without connectivity. Luckily, new ‘narrowband’ network solutions may hold the key. Narrowband is the exact opposite of 5G - aimed at transmitting very small amounts of data over long distances while conserving battery life.

The narrowband solution backed by telcos is called NB-IoT, and in Australia trials are underway to roll this out across and beyond mobile coverage areas over the next two years. NB-IoT coverage will make it affordable to connect vast numbers of sensors to the internet, with battery life in excess of 10 years. It will be a game changer in the way we collect and analyse farm data.

4. The world is still drone-obsessed

While many farmers will consider drones to be old news now, MWC this year includes a standalone drone expo, showcasing the latest developments from the big manufacturers.

While using drones for package delivery is a big focus – with Mercedes-Benz showcasing a new concept – uses like crop monitoring and infrastructure surveying are where the bulk of the action lies.

New releases promise big improvements on battery life, and in the development pipeline companies are looking at wireless charging solutions that would enable drones to self-charge without the need for an operator.

What looks like a toy helipad is actually a new wireless charging station for this prototype drone.

5. Virtual reality comes closer to reality

Virtual reality headsets have seen huge growth in sales over the past year, and providers are continuing to perfect the experience to make it more seamless for the user.

What’s the point? Honestly, I’m not yet sure. But some smart people are convinced that in the future customers will want a virtual experience to accompany the purchases they make. A tour of the farm that produced their food perhaps? It all seems a bit science fiction, but then everything seems that way until it’s not.

Charlie Thomas is the General Manager – Digital & Industry Partnerships with the National Farmers’ Federation. He travelled to the World Mobile Congress as a guest of Huawei Australia.

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