5G technology and smart agriculture to aid Indian farmers

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Top photo credit: IWMI/Prashanth Vishwanathan

By Shalini Gakhar, Sheetal Sharma and Rabi Sahoo.

Since October 2022, India has embarked on the fastest rollout of 5G mobile data in the world, with average download speeds nearing 100 megabits per second. Agriculture is one of the fields set to be impacted: here we share five ways in which 5G can enable more productive smart farms in India.

The context

Nearly half of India’s labour force is employed in agriculture, but farmers face many obstacles to achieving high productivity and a good income. One indicator is that just 40-45 percent of farms are mechanized, with one study highlighting factors such as small farm size, low access to power and credit services, and low awareness of the options. Digital technologies offer many answers to this problem, along with better management of scarce natural resources.

Mobile internet has the revolutionary potential to connect rural populations and enable technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in remote areas. Compared to its predecessors, 5G offers greater reliability and 25 times greater download speeds, required for connected devices (known as internet of things, or IOTs) or new AI applications.

In 2015, the Indian government announced the Digital India Initiative, which connected 270 million Indians to mobile internet within 8 years and led the way for 5G adoption. An enabling environment has led to a proliferation of agtech startups, while one of the many government initiatives includes the agri-stack: an open source system unifying agricultural datasets and connecting them with individual farmers.

During the India Mobile Congress 2023 Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, announced the establishment of 5G use case labs in 100 educational institutes researching the application of connectivity with different technological sectors, and positioning India as a potential leader for the upcoming era of 6G.

How 5G connectivity can transform India’s farms

1. On-farm data collection and remote sensing

5G technology can connect the spectrum of devices that can capture information about farms, from climatic conditions to crop or soil health. Some devices such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, robots, and sensors, among others are difficult to operate in remote locations, but have a potential to enable near real-time monitoring of crops.

UAVs, for example, can be equipped with a multitude of sensors (RGB, multispectral, thermal, hyperspectral, LiDAR) that provide insights into farmers’ fields. They can also be used in farming practices such as spraying crops, or roles such as damage assessment for insurance purposes.

2. Big data and analytics

Smart agriculture integrates the use of data analytics and advanced tools and techniques under a single umbrella. This provides farmers a centralized control over all farm-related activities, with emphasis on resource optimization to promote sustainable practices for the future.

5G supports the enormous amounts of data being handled by remote sensing and IoT devices, connecting them to centralized databases combining details such as soil moisture, crop parameters, weather parameters, and fertilizer applications.

3. Smart IOT farm equipment

Modern farming equipment also requires a continuous exchange of data over high-speed networks in agricultural fields. Both collecting data and applying optimized farm management practices, this equipment can automize precision agricultural practices to produce more food with fewer resources such as fertilizer, and improve the incomes of farmers.

4. Electronic and AI-powered extension

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) too has a host of digital innovation applications for enabling farmers to support them with the latest in smart agriculture technology. IRRI’s Rice Crop Manager (RCM) app provides field specific nutrient and crop management information to farmers ensuring the most optimum utilization of resources. RCM recommendations are provided to farmers to improve and guide crop management. It is a complementary tool for extension workers to support farmers with altering needs to match their field conditions.

The 5G rollout supports the latest trends in agricultural e-extension. Whereas farmers would usually receive simple blanket recommendations, they can now be involved in producing knowledge and capturing data such as images with their phones that feed into the system. Remote sensing and IoT data, combined with modelling and other datasets can provide more timely recommendations for different agricultural stakeholders.

AI based tools (robots, chatbots, apps) are already helping the farmers with quick updates on pests and diseases with unremitting vigilance of their fields. These skills could assist farmers to make optimised decisions for farm planning, water and soil conservation, livestock production, and nutrient management, to name a few.

5. Connecting markets

Paving the way for the cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoTs) available in agriculture, 5G will aid in bridging the existing gaps. For agricultural applications, 5G expands its scope over AI robots, decision support systems, data analysis with cloud capabilities, near-real time crop monitoring, UAVs for imaging and irrigation, predictive proficiency, virtual recommendations, and many more. Nevertheless, the advantages of high competence, connectivity, capacity, and wide scope come at the cost of high infrastructure.

As the technology is fenced by plentiful challenges, policy makers must proceed toward decisive actions assisted by infrastructure and investment. The future perspective is to cater a significant number of farm devices to transfer the data back and forth minimising the human efforts. Low-cost intelligent sensors, mobile applications, cloud-based architecture, AI enabled farms embraced with 5G technology hold new futuristic smart agriculture areas for exploration.

About the authors

Dr. Shalini Gakhar, Data Scientist – Interoperability and Data Science Life Cycle, International Rice Research Institute (CGIAR-IRRI)

Shalini Gakhar is presently working as a Data Scientist: Interoperability and Data Science Life Cycle at IRRI. She has completed her PhD degree from Delhi Technological University (DTU), New Delhi, India. Major areas of research include hyperspectral remote sensing, machine learning, deep learning, target detection, drone data acquisition and analysis.

Dr. Sheetal Sharma, Scientist – Soil Science, Sustainable Impact Department, International Rice Research Institute (CGIAR-IRRI)

An expert in enhancing rice-based agri-food systems with improved soil nutrient management and agri-relevant ICT, Sheetal provides strategic leadership in developing, leading, and implementing programs utilizing ICT to amplify, disseminate, and package IRRI’s scientific research into knowledge tools for a variety of audiences. She identifies future innovative technology platforms to transfer knowledge and increase efficiencies in regenerative farming systems to improve soil health and system productivity.

Dr. Rabi N Sahoo, Principal Scientist – Division of Agricultural Physics, ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute
He has more than 23 years of experience in research, teaching and capacity building in Remote Sensing & GIS and its applications in Agriculture. His major research interest is Remote Sensing applications in Agriculture:hyperspectral remote sensing and radiative transfer modelling for soil and crop health monitoring, drone remote sensing, precision farming, plant phenomics using sensors at ground, air and satellite platforms.


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