Brazilian agribusiness competitiveness requires LPWAN networks

May 07, 2021

Agriculture is undergoing a digital transformation that could yield $500 billion in the global gross domestic product by 2030, according to data from McKinsey & Company. Artificial intelligence, analytics, connected sensors, and other emerging technologies can further increase yields, improve the efficiency of water and other inputs, and build sustainability and resilience across crop and livestock cultivation.

However, while current IoT technologies running on 3G and 4G cellular networks are sufficient today to enable simpler use cases such as advanced crop and livestock monitoring, they cannot unlock the full potential value that connectivity holds for agriculture. To achieve this, the industry will need to make use of digital applications and analytics that will require low latency, high bandwidth, high resilience, and support for a density of devices offered by advanced and frontier connectivity technologies such as LPWAN, 5G, and LEO satellites.

Therefore, it will be necessary to develop the current infrastructure to enable connectivity in agriculture and work out solid business cases. 

McKinsey analyzed five use cases — crop monitoring, livestock monitoring, building, and equipment management, drone farming, and autonomous farm machinery — where enhanced connectivity is already in the early stages of use and is likely to deliver higher yields, lower costs, and greater resilience and sustainability the industry needs to thrive in the 21st century.

In Brazil

Luis Arís, business development manager at Paessler Latin America, focused on the impact of these technologies on Brazilian agribusiness, in an article distributed by the company’s press office this week. According to him, the sector invoiced R$ 2 trillion in Brazil and its participation in the GDP grew 2%. “It is an export industry that, in 2020, invoiced US$ 101 billion in sales of products such as soy, meat, sugar, cotton, and meat – according to data from ESALQ/USP.

“In 2021, the competitiveness of this sector depended more and more on automation. The market competed for by Brazilian agribusiness is global and extremely agile and requires this sector to be continuously engaged in digital innovation programs”, he writes. “Relying on a digitized and connected infrastructure is essential to make the leap towards Precision Farming, a method that aims to manage agricultural land in a differentiated way and targeted at maximum productivity.”

According to Arís, we can already see the results of this technology, for example in smart vineyards, which provide the best fertile soil for good vines and ultimately produce better wines. The effects of global warming can be seen in viticulture. This has led managers to look for ways to deal with the possibility of rapid climate change and more extreme weather conditions.

“In this context, more and more winemakers are using IoT sensors distributed throughout the vineyards. The goal is to send environmental data, drone images, and information about the composition of the vine leaves to ERP platforms in the cloud. This data is visualized and analyzed on these platforms, generating a better overview of what is happening in the field, something essential for planning daily work. The analyses, for example, can be performed with Power BI solutions and with the help of Cognitive Services,” writes the executive. With the help of the IoT infrastructure, therefore, winegrowers can better plan their daily work and know that their vineyards and grapes are always well protected.

Arís points out that the DNA of this sector, based on huge properties with little or no digital structure, has led managers to study what is the best type of LPWAN to apply in their properties and thus connect IoT devices.

Among the various LPWAN technologies used in agribusiness are LoRA, Sigfox, MIOTY, NB IoT, and LTE-M. Arís describes the most common use cases for each of them.

LoRa – With LoRa tags it is possible to track, for example, a herd moving across a vast field. This ensures the delivery of a wide variety of data: reading the data can indicate whether a bull or cow is sick, bogged down, lost, or dead. The temperature measured by the IoT device and transmitted by the LoRa tag can, on the other hand, indicate a dead bull that, if not detected, could spread disease to others. A live (temperature) but static (GPS) animal could be injured or bogged down. The LoRa network uses radio frequency (unlicensed spectrum) to transmit data in a very optimal way over distances of up to more than 15 kilometers between connected points. The battery of the LoRa device can last up to ten years.

Sigfox – This technology is suitable for applications with extremely small bandwidths and equally restricted-energy budgets. These are typical constraints in the agricultural business. The goal is to use transmitters that are autonomous and not dependent on a power supply. The special point about Sigfox is that it is a standalone network for IoT devices. It is an open standard that operates at sub-GHz frequencies (between 868 and 928 MHz) and can be used by any wireless service provider, which facilitates the connection between the field and operator networks.

MIOTY – The Fraunhofer Institute’s MIOTY software solution uses a technology that increases its geographical range by 10 times compared to conventional 868 MHz wireless systems. Because it creates little interference for itself, the system can simultaneously support up to a million transmitters. It is typically a technology for massive use in large environments that need to be interconnected. MIOTY offers extended battery operation of up to several decades.

NB IoT (and LTE-M) – This new narrowband radio technology offers services suitable for a small bandwidth. It uses existing LTE and GSM operator infrastructure to facilitate communication with IoT devices. LTE-M is part of release 13 of the 3GPP standards — compatible with future 5G networks — to reduce power consumption, reduce the cost of devices and enable greater coverage. In addition, it offers what is perhaps the highest level of security of all the LPWAN technologies presented here. Given how competitive the global agribusiness market is, taking care of digital security is a critical factor in these projects.

Each of these network standards — LoRa, Sigfox, MIOTY and NB IoT — excels in specific applications. This study requires a consultative look at each agribusiness company’s challenge and how to address it. The most likely answer will be based on a hybrid environment, where different versions of LPWAN networks will combine with each other to ignite all sectors of the company, from soybean fields to tractors. The presence of “white-label” infrastructure monitoring solutions, capable of controlling the behavior of digital devices with diverse standards is essential to the success of these projects. It will be these solutions that will consolidate KPIs critical to business management.