Farmers use private LTE in CBRS spectrum to increase yields

Missouri's Hurst Greenery says real-time IoT services delivered over a private LTE network are expected to deliver a 10% increase in profits, driven by increased yields and cost savings. Hurst is working with Trilogy Networks to implement next-gen agriculture technology.

The words industrial automation bring to mind factory floors for many people, but for Trilogy Networks automation is all about the farm, not the factory. The Colorado company is keeping a close eye on agtech developments such as soil sensors and wearables for livestock, which COO Nancy Shemwell describes as "Fitbits for pigs."

"When you look at industrial automation, that really does focus in a very large way in the rural space," said Shemwell.  "When you think about agriculture or energy, their ability to be automated and drive mass economies is there." She said Trilogy's goal is to "spearhead the digital transformation of rural America" using private LTE networks. 

Trilogy specializes in VPN connections between service providers and orchestration of multi-cloud environments. Leveraging Zayo's fiber network, the company is trying to connect 1.5 million square miles of edge compute capability across rural America in order to provide infrastructure for 5G energy and agricultural use cases. The company has some of the elements necessary for this ambitious project, but many more are needed, so Trilogy founded the Rural Cloud Initiative (RCI), a partnership that includes regional carriers as well as solutions providers. They are using private LTE, edge compute, and data analytics to automate agriculture in a variety of settings. 

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RCI's first commercial deployment is the Hurst Greenery in Westboro, Missouri, which completed the first phase of deployment on September 30, 2020. The network supports 18 greenhouses that are part of a 600-acre farm. These greenhouses, best known for their flowers, needed automation to improve monitoring of temperature and soil moisture.

RCI brought together 10 partners to connect the greenhouses using publicly available CBRS spectrum. Celona provides the private LTE network including CBRS access points, the Evolved Packet Core, SIM cards and a cloud-hosted network operations console. ClearBlade's IoT edge platform connects digital sensors to monitor and control heaters, fans and alarms for temperature and moisture changes.

"This first phase of the Farm of the Future project will result in a 10%  increase in efficiency and profit, allowing for increases in yields and cost savings," said Blake Hurst , owner of Hurst Greenery, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, and vice president of the FCC Precision Connectivity Working Group.

For its part, Trilogy provides regional edge cloud platforms in three telco data centers: Midwest Data Center in Missouri, FMTC Data Center in Iowa, and SBA Edge Data Center in Chicago, all connected on a single network fabric by Pluribus. Lanner Electronics provides the intelligent edge compute platform to integrate LTE and eventually 5G devices. Chat Mobility serves as the LTE public network provider at Hurst Greenery. 

"When we deploy private networks on farms, we want to seamlessly connect to the macro network provided by the operator in the area," said Venky Swaminathan, Trilogy's CTO and chief strategist. "We want sensors and drones to be able to seamlessly move between the private network we have and the macro network at the outreaches of the farm so it looks like one network. ... that's our larger goal."  

Trilogy and RCI are also part of a futuristic farm test bed in North Dakota. According to Shemwell, the governor of North Dakota wants to make his state the precision agriculture capital of the world and has partnered with the state's universities and the nonprofit sector to create research locations statewide. One of these, a 40-acre area called Grand Farm, is preparing to use private LTE to connect drone-mounted cameras that fly over fields to look for weeds using machine vision technology and AI. The goal is to target herbicide usage so that crops are spared and the environmental impact is minimized.  

"With real-time capability right at the farm you can make real-time decisions and be able to spray herbicides as you look at it," said Swaminathan. Currently, the farm collects the data and sends it to servers at North Dakota State University to be processed, so there is a time-lag between analysis and action. 

At Grand Farm, Trilogy will deploy its edge site platform along with switching fabric and connections to backhaul and to North Dakota State University. They have not picked a radio partner yet but are likely to have several choices. Swaminathan said the company has worked with a number of radio vendors in the past, and Shemwell added that RCI is aggressively adding new companies to its ecosystem.