Discovery Ag and NNNCo announce Rural IoT Network for Australia’s farmers

Published: June 16th, 2017

A new joint venture between Discovery Ag and the National Narrowband Network Co (NNNCo) will be announced today at Australian Farm Institute’s Harvesting the Benefits of Digital Agriculture conference in Melbourne. The venture involves the formation of a new company, Connected Country, to build and operate a nationwide Rural Internet of Things (IoT) network to bring hi-tech agriculture solutions to Australian farmers.

The Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) will provide the backbone infrastructure for secure, standards based shared networks of low-cost wireless sensors that constantly report on essential farm metrics like soil moisture, rainfall, crop health, water levels and livestock data.

The network will be immediately rolled out immediately across 1 million acres in NSW which will encompass dry land crops, horticulture and livestock and a number of rural tows. Within 18 months, the joint venture partners intend to extend across vast areas of the nation’s farming regions.

“While hi-tech farming techniques are in use today, significant areas of Australia’s farming footprint lack adequate network coverage,” said Discovery Ag CEO, Alicia Garden. “For those that do have coverage, existing connectivity networks can make it too expensive for farmers to network their sensors and create a truly connected ‘smart farm’.”

NNNCo Founder & CEO, Rob Zagarella, said “The Rural IoT Network is an extension of the NNN that we’re building nationwide and will help to solve connectivity and affordability problems for farmers. Together with Discovery Ag we will be providing low-cost end-to end standards based solutions comprising on-farm networks, network-ready sensors, and access to simple on-farm tools that farmers can use to monitor information and take timely action.”

“The Joint Venture is the first of its kind in Australia’s emerging IoT market. Connected Country is dedicated to providing carrier grade networks to enable smarter, cheaper and more ubiquitous sensors by leveraging local innovation in conjunction with a global ecosystem of providers. The goal is to drive productivity, efficiency and risk management solutions across rural and regional Australia.”

Connected Country has already started working with key partners including Cisco and the NSW Department of Primary Industries to fast-track the network roll-out.

”Cisco has been collaborating with the NSW Department of Primary Industries to solve the digital drought in rural Australia. We see the Rural IoT Network as essential to this development,” said Cisco Australia and New Zealand’s Vice-President Ken Boal.

Agriculture is forecast to be one of the key industries where the Internet of Things can make a significant contribution to Australia’s future growth and competitiveness.

“The future of farming is in collecting and analysing big data in order to maximise efficiency, mitigate risk and drive productivity” explained Ms Garden. “Connected farmers will be able to monitor and understand a broad range of specific areas of their farm without physically checking, from soil moisture, paddock specific rainfallcritical water infrastrusture, track livestock movements, and remotely control irrigation and other on-farm resources. These deep insights will then provide the basis for better production prediction and analytics, along with creating new data driven finance and insurance solutions. We see the IoT heralding a new era of productivity gains for the sector.”

One of the key success factors for Connected Country will be its ability to help farmers collate and analyse large amounts of data from IoT devices and signals, and then use that information to make better decisions.

“Two of the biggest predictors of crop yield are soil moisture and rainfall, which can vary widely across different parts of a farm” Ms Garden explained. “The decisions farmers make about when and where to irrigate, what to plant in which paddock, use of chemicals and fertilisers, and when to harvest can have a huge bearing on their annual production. If we can help them make better decisions across multiple aspects of farm management, the productivity gains will be significant.”

The impact of the new network on current pricing structures will also be important, representing a huge opportunity for farmers keen to employ new technologies to boost profitability and efficiencies, but who up until now have been deterred by price.

“The network will significantly drive down the cost of connection for data communication and the cost of sensors using this technology. This will make the difference between isolated usage and widespread deployment of the sensors which will in turn provide more granular information and higher value to the industry,” Mr Zagarella said.

LoRaWAN technology chosen to deliver IoT to farmers

While different technologies exist to fulfil Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) requirements, LoRaWAN technology was chosen by Discovery Ag and NNNCo to deliver the Rural IoT network.

Zagarella said “LoRaWAN’s capabilities are extremely well suited to agricultural requirements. The technology is already used in farms across in Europe and the USA and has proven to be low cost and effective. LoRaWAN-enabled sensors are available at a relatively low cost and a LoRaWAN on-farm gateway can cover large areas and connect to thousands of sensors at an affordable cost.”

A key capability of LoRaWAN is the extremely low power consumption as well astheflexibility to support a wide range of use cases. For example, bi-directional communication and multicast functionality which enable farmers to communicate with sensors on an individual and group level. Instead of simply receiving data, farmers can control key aspects of their farm such as water infrastructure, asset tracking, demand feeding and watering and emergency signalling amongst a host of other applications.

“Data ownership and privacy were another reason we chose LoRaWAN”, added Ms Garden. “It’s very important to farmers that they can own and control their data. Through Connected Country, the data remains in Australia and is controlled by the sensor owner – in this instance the grower. Being an open standard technology we encourage other sensor developers to connect to and leverage the network over time. This is key because we know the industry will demand sensor choice and competition. Rather than being tied to a proprietary network with a silo solution, LoRaWAN will ensure they become part of an ecosystem.”