The future of farming
How smart agriculture can help us reach key sustainability goals
Smart farming can help farmers address climate change challenges and meet the ever-increasing demand for crops and materials, while also offering more sustainable solutions. As of now, agriculture is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the world, according to the United Nations (UN).
The UN Sustainability Development Goal of ending hunger, achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030 looms near, and the key to realistically achieving it could lie in agricultural technology.
Smart farms rely on a vast amount of data, harvested using artificial intelligence (AI) and remote operations, to help farmers boost yields, reduce resource consumption, and cut costs. These advancements have the potential to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture. However, they require expansive networks that enable connectivity in rural areas, which underscores the crucial importance of improving internet access.
How is smart farming evolving?
Increasingly, farms will use transformative technologies such as AI and machine learning, Internet of Things, digital twins, as well as edge and cloud computing. With the addition of advances in robotics, drones and extended reality, these technologies can contribute to improved quality of harvest and greater yields based on richer ecosystem insights. Using smart glasses in the field to read data from biodegradable sensors, for example, can support farmers in scaling agricultural operations in a more resource-efficient way.
What needs to be done to support this technology?
Connectivity is crucial to smart farming. With a mobile network platform at its core, a farm can reliably collect huge amounts of data in real time from sensors, drones, robots and farming equipment. This data can be used to make productive decisions, predictions and actions, supported by AI and other solutions.
How do you connect a farm?
Farming communities, even in the most remote locations, need reliable, high-capacity coverage. Farms in the EU use 173 million hectares of land for agricultural production and account for 39 percent of the total land area of the EU. One solution lies in 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), which can often provide connectivity faster and at a lower cost than fiber.
The benefits are twofold – the same 5G network that offers FWA to connect rural homes, businesses and farms simultaneously supports wide-area mobile connectivity for advanced technology in agriculture. Such connectivity also ensures that all rural stakeholders have equitable access to digital public services.
By combining the right technology with a sustainability ethos, we can make serious changes to the way we grow crops and materials.
Smart farming will help with both resource utilization and waste management, which if applied correctly, could both offer solutions that are more sustainable and reduce the need for agricultural expansion.
The need is dire. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, agricultural expansion drives up to 90 percent of global deforestation. The entire production chain must be reimagined and made more efficient, cutting waste from seed to supermarket, dinner table to garbage bin. It’s imperative to rethink our meat consumption, protect our forests and oceans, and return to a more local, seasonal production model.
Upgrading to smart farms to meet these sustainability needs does not come without cost, but the resulting efficiency of farming operations could outweigh the cost of infrastructure development itself.
In the United States, Ericsson is already providing critical and customized 4G and 5G infrastructure as part of the ARA (Agriculture and Rural Communities) living lab in Iowa. This research initiative focuses on the convergence of wireless 5G technology, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), including automated ground vehicles as well as cameras and sensors.
Today, based on a 1550 square kilometer 5G coverage area, Ericsson and its partners have already connected six rural agriculture communities – delivering benefits like more efficient and precise farming operations but also opening opportunities for schools, public service agencies, and healthcare facilities in those areas.
High-speed, high-performance, secure and reliable connectivity is key to underpinning the digital transformation of farming, and governments should set an ambitious connectivity agenda that targets the deployment and take-up of transformative 5G across both urban and rural areas.
5G FWA can connect rural communities to a vibrant future by providing a cost-effective complement or alternative to fiber deployments. Ubiquitous mobile connectivity is the foundation that allows us to unlock the benefits of smart farming while giving autonomy to farmers and treat agriculture as the critical infrastructure that it is for every country in the world.
Seizing the opportunity and driving inclusion, the European Commission has approved a EUR 680 million Spanish scheme under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. It will support the rollout of 5G networks in rural areas by opening a wealth of opportunities, with smart farming set to benefit. Technology-neutral public funding can help attract further private sector investments to ensure the network coverage and performance supports smart farming and connects all rural areas.
In Australia, agribusiness is an AUD 316 billion (USD 200 billion) industry that utilizes 55 percent of Australia’s landmass. A successful 5G application over the next decade will significantly boost the economy-wide value. A report by Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association found that accelerating agriculture’s 5G adoption could unlock an additional AUD 15 billion (USD 10 billion) by 2030.
The financial benefit of digitalization powered by connectivity is further evidenced in an Ericsson study commissioned with Analysys Mason to quantify the potential economic benefits of 5G. In all the emerging markets studied, agriculture is a significant sector in the economy, especially India where agriculture makes up around 9 percent of GDP and has the potential to deliver a cumulative economic benefit of up to USD 29.4 billion over the analyzed period to 2035.
Rural FWA has a benefit-cost ratio of 10:1 and 5G for agriculture stands at 8:1
Smart farming efforts will help farmers grow safer and more efficiently, and they will also produce a massive amount of data. With networks managing all this data, digital technologies can support in maintaining agricultural equipment and the distribution, management and productivity of land, such as crop efficiency yields and techniques.
This is not a far-future vision but an impending reality, in which the World Economic Forum has declared plant sensors a top emerging technology. Think of drones that are programmed to autonomously fly over a farm and sensors that are installed in every corner of a field to gather data on humidity, growth, temperature, pest and disease detection and other key variables.
Combining this information with data from internet services, such as weather and satellite images, will make it possible for farmers to precisely plan activities like irrigation, fertilization, use of pesticides and harvesting, which will improve yield and minimize resource use. Cloud applications can then process and store data online, allowing AI-powered farming equipment to make decisions powered by connectivity.
In Kenya, Illuminum Greenhouses build smart greenhouses powered by AI and machine learning (ML), and they were recently named Ericsson Innovation Award winners. Through their trademarked FarmShield solution, farmers have reported less need for physical labor, increased yields by up to 30 percent and reduced water usage by up to 60 percent.
With access to new data, farmers could make timely and informed decisions on how to provide for their home markets, eliminating long and complex distribution chains by relying on readily available consumer data. This can help resurrect local farming, cutting carbon emissions from distribution and logistics, while consumers will be able to access much more information about their food.
"Smart farming isn't a trend. It's a scientifically proven sustainable practice."
- Gottfried Pessl, CEO & Founder, Pessl Instruments
Agricultural technology is ripe for innovation. For example, developers can explore associating specific devices and information to an incredibly precise position and time, utilizing AI to make rapid decisions, all in a standardized way. The Ericsson Global Network platform is based on standardized components operating without silos and restrictions that enable a wide ecosystem where innovation can be driven by different players.
With powerful networks at their core, here are some examples of how smart farming is evolving today.
According to the UN, up to 40 percent of the world’s land is now degraded due to damage caused mostly by food production, putting the ability to feed the planet’s growing population at risk. How do you monitor the tiniest details, like soil health and air quality on a grand scale?
Ericsson researchers in Turkey and Morocco have built a smart greenhouse that monitors soil quality and rainfall, and employs sensors to measure air quality, temperature, movement, humidity and light levels. The system uses a customizable set of rules to automatically activate air humidification, LED lighting, irrigation, air ventilation and more.
Sensors can also make an incredible difference in agricultural environments. In the Ericsson Connected Mangroves project, sensors monitored real-time information about soil, pH and salinity levels. This data was used to manage the site, which resulted in a survival rate of up to 85 percent of the trees, double the figure before sensors were utilized.
According to bee experts at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, one-third of the world’s food production depends on bees. Bee colony health and fitness is still declining and in many parts of the world, it is especially difficult for the colonies to make it through the winter. The main causes for health issues are infestations of varroa mites, the loss of the queen, and even starvation. All these issues can be managed and avoided with year-round monitoring powered by connectivity.
Ericsson researchers in Gothenburg, Sweden have come up with an inventive solution named Bee Winged, making use of data and AI. They gather data and apply AI algorithms to predict risks quickly and effectively in order to help save the colonies. By scaling this solution up to multiple beehives, the researchers are getting a geographical macro view of where bee colonies thrive and where they suffer. This is a valuable insight for farmers of all kinds to understand where poor pollination is a risk.
Smart farming best practices include the use of sensors, GPS and AI to navigate fields and target specific areas, making intelligent decisions and acting with precision – for example, identifying plants in need of water and actuating irrigation there. This is called precision agriculture.
This includes everything from bruise-free fruit picking to pest and disease monitoring, and the latter could be instrumental in minimizing the use of pesticides. The European Environment Agency has stated that widespread pesticide use is a major source of pollution, driving biodiversity loss and is now linked to chronic illnesses and diseases. In 2023, a University of Sydney study showed that about 80 percent of applied pesticides degrade into or bypass into the soil surrounding crops.
With pesticide reduction an imperative goal, the Common Agricultural Policy from the European Commission offers “instruments” to support farmers in these efforts, including supporting investments in precision farming.
Countries like Ireland have already reached their 2030 pesticide reduction goals thanks to – alongside other key factors – precision agriculture.
Working in vineyards in the Chianti area of Italy, teams from Ericsson and Zuchetti Centro Sistemi collaborated on the “5G for Tuscany” project developing solar powered agri-robots that managed tasks like soil management and vineyard treatment.
Utilizing geo-fencing for precision location, the agri-robots were able to efficiently navigate the vineyard, detecting plant diseases in vineyards by sending high-resolution images to the cloud for analysis, and therefore reducing the need and use of disease treatments.
Australian farmers are also embracing the power of robotics and AI. SwarmFarm Robotics uses AI-powered precision farming to support a drastic reduction in pesticides entering the atmosphere by detecting then only treating individual weeds. The ability for 24/7 weed control has also produced optimal water conservation with the smaller machinery reducing soil compaction.
Entire "swarms" of these robots can be coordinated through cloud robotics, made possible by the low latency and reliability of 5G.
By using digitalization intentionally, smart farms can change the way we grow and eat. They can support sustainability goals and revitalize communities. This transformation, however, relies on connectivity, and there is much work to be done when it comes to connecting rural and farming areas. In the European Commission’s most recent State of the Digital Decade report, the wide digital gap was addressed head on:
Investing in connectivity, including in rural and remote areas, is key to ensuring equal access to digital opportunities and activities that require increasingly higher speeds.
Only once high performing networks are rolled out expansively can we really reap the benefits of sensors in fields, AI-powered farming equipment, resource efficient precision farming and more.
We believe we are just years away from achieving a world where technology can work fully in harmony with nature, and crops can flourish in healthy, cared-for soil across all parts of the world.
How will your business and industry contribute to that journey today and in the future?
Special thanks to:
Edgar Ramos, Lars-Erik Lindberg, Gustav Wikström