Futureproofing farms

A few months back in Yetman, NSW, farmer Colin Dight dug into the back of a drawer and pulled out the chequebook he thought he had retired for good.

Since 2008, when the 3G mobile tower was switched on at Yetman, Dight has been paying bills online through westpac.com.au. Over the last 12 months, though, network congestion has made that option increasingly challenging.

“On bad nights it’s easier to just sit down and write a bunch of cheques when you want to get bills paid,” Dight says.

There are good nights, but they are getting more infrequent.

The Dight family, who run a large cropping, cotton and beef business (Dight’s ancestors were also one of Westpac’s earliest agribusiness clients), are among a growing number of rural enterprises whose business management was initially transformed by broadband internet, but saw that promise being increasingly challenged by too much traffic on inadequate infrastructure.

But communications, unlike freeways, can change rapidly. Where market failure exists, technological innovation rushes in to fill the vacuum. In communications, the possibilities for disruption are enormous.

Innovation as saviour

Toowoomba-based Tim Neale, an ag-tech specialist for two decades, is hearing stories like Dight’s across the wireless agricultural world. “The mobile network is not only not improving, it’s degrading,” he says.

Neale finds this frustrating to hear these problems from so many, but he’s not pessimistic about connectivity in the bush. There is simply too much innovation going on.

He’s particularly interested in the potential of smallsats (or cubesats, or box satellites—the terminology isn’t settled), shoebox-sized satellites that are provoking an unprecedented shakeup of the space industry. A good example is a company out of South Australia called Myriota, which has developed an innovative and inexpensive method of data transfer from remote areas, back to the user.

A typical communications satellite costs hundreds of millions of dollars to build and millions of dollars to launch into geostationary orbit 36,000 km into space.

A smallsat, typically about one litre in volume (nano and pico sats are even smaller), is made using inexpensive off- the-shelf components and can be launched cheaply into a low Earth orbit of 600 km.

A smallsat does not work alone. These little units are launched in ‘constellations’, in numbers ranging from a handful to dozens. Orbiting in their constellations, each smallsat uses different sensors for different functions, all communicating so that they effectively become one array.

Cheap but connected, a kind of internet for space, smallsats are already disaggregating the space industry, as personal computers once disaggregated mainframe computing.

And already, Neale observes, there is considerable effort being put into building communications-specific smallsat constellations.

“It’s not hard to imagine that soon, it will be viable for a business or government to launch its own box satellite constellation and provide almost zero-latency broadband communications to a specific area,” Neale says.

That might not necessarily be the all-singing, all-dancing internet service we might choose if given the option, but for many farmers it’s a viable alternative to groaning communications infrastructure.

A two-tier system

At the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, Professor David Lamb, leader of the Precision Agriculture Research Group and the SMART Farm project, is thinking that there might inevitably be two communications networks—one to traffic human affairs, another for the data of sensors that is powering the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

A bit like taking trucks off the freeway, running the IoT on a separate network makes a lot more room for cars—or, in internet terms, cat GIFs, selfies and online banking.

“There are some really interesting developments,” Lamb says. “For example, companies like the Australian National Narrowband Network Co. (NNNCo) are seeing that we need a low-cost, reliable solution for data that can be built independently of the networks that people use to communicate.”

“If we can develop two networks, one for things and one for people, we can refine those networks in different ways to improve cost and efficiency. Sensors can talk to satellites without being bothered by latency, or use radio networks. Stuff that bothers people does not bother things. And we are not talking about physically separate infrastructure either. It is just about how we manage the ‘data operations’ within existing telecommunications infrastructure” Like Neale, Lamb acknowledges the frustration of those who currently find themselves in an internet superhighway traffic jam; and like Neale, Lamb doesn’t think the situation will persist forever.

The communications revolution is upon us. We might just have to wait a little longer to reap its benefits.

Words: Matthew Cawood

Reproduced from the Spring 2016 edition of Westpac’s Agribusiness publication "Produce"

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.