I’ve been reading and hearing a lot recently about cellular IoT not being suitable for smart farming and agricultural applications. The main reasons given are that it uses too much power, and does not have the coverage or range needed.
But that doesn’t reflect the world that I am seeing. For example, Finnish startup, Anicare, is already using narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), one of the two categories of cellular IoT, the other being LTE-M. Both track the health and location of farmed reindeer — and other herding animals — that spend most of the year in the wild.
The Anicare Healtag tracker is attached to an animal’s earflap, and autonomously measures vital functions for up to five years. Data is sent via cellular network to the cloud for immediate access via a smartphone application. This means injured or sick animals can be automatically identified for rescue and treatment. This device is very small, and is testament to the low power capability of cellular IoT technology.
But how can this application be helpful when used regions of Lapland and Scandinavia, where regular cell phone coverage can sometimes be a challenge?
NB-IoT is built for range
The good news is that NB-IoT is designed to offer enhanced coverage in hard-to reach areas. This includes indoors and uninhabited rural areas. It offers 20+dB (x7) better coverage compared to LTE-M. Maximum coverage is achieved by using a low 200kHz bandwidth, and simpler signaling structures and retransmissions up to 2,048 times.
Furthermore, NB-IoT has three deployment scenarios: standalone, guard band and in band. Paired with its narrow 200kHz bandwidth, NB-IoT can deploy even to occupied lower cellular bands. These lower frequency bands have excellent propagation characteristics and provide excellent performance in terms of coverage. As such, an NB-IoT signal has a real-world range of over 30km. Indeed, the longest-range a NB-IoT connection achieved in a commercial network is 100km.
Another application example already on the market is an NB-IoT emergency alarm currently available in Holland from Dutch startup, Montr. The Montr Emergency Button is designed to protect people in vulnerable situations, such as lone professionals at risk of physical attack or isolated accident, as well as seniors living at home. During internal tests, Montr found the NB-IoT signals could penetrate into locations such as deep basements commonly found under swimming pools, which have zero traditional cellphone signal.
Cellular is everywhere
Even though cellular IoT is ready for smart farming and agriculture applications today, the future looks even rosier. There are numerous initiatives around the world now underway where cities are being blanketed in high-speed cellular coverage, and rural areas having none is increasingly being deemed unacceptable.
This is a push-and-pull scenario where there is market pull from consumers living in rural areas, and regulatory push from governments and telecom regulators to ensure it happens. For example, carrier U.S. Cellular recently announced plans to bring fairness to cellular network availability by actively targeting rural areas.
I predict, within a few years, hardly anywhere on this planet will not have access to cellular connectivity. I also predict that in certain smart agriculture and smart farming applications with particularly low-duty cycles, you will have cellular IoT-based solutions that consume such small amounts of power that they could have infinite battery lifetimes. This will be achieved through the use of energy harvesting solutions such as solar or inertial energy.
So the next time you read — or are told — that you can’t use cellular IoT for smart farming or agricultural applications, I’d question the source of that information.
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