Can Starlink Save the World by Connecting Farms?
GreenSight innovates in a number of different areas, but one of the areas we are most passionate about is in agriculture. We’ve deployed our drone intelligence systems all over the world at all sorts of different facilities. One of the most challenging has been deployments at farms, and one of the biggest challenges has been connectivity. Connected farms are a requirement to feed the world, and Starlink will make that happen.
Most urban and suburban households in the United States have had easy and reasonably inexpensive access to high speed internet access for 20 years. It is easy to forget that the situation is not the same for rural areas of the country. Many areas have no access to high speed, “broadband”, internet access, with some having only dialup internet access in their homes. According to the 2015 FCC broadband report, only 53% of rural households have access to high speed internet, even using low standards for “high” speed. On average farms have even less access, and that doesn’t even include high speed connectivity out in their fields. Cellular service is spotty especially on large farms in primarily agricultural areas, and legacy satellite systems provide slow upload speeds at expensive prices. Utilizing modern internet connected technologies and cloud based systems that require constant, high speed access can be a challenge at best and potentially impossible.
A 2016 research study by Goldman and Sachs projected that by 2050, the world’s food production efficiency needs to increase by 50% to support our growing population. This paper backs up this conclusion with a lot of research, but the fundamental conclusion is that farming land area is unlikely to increase nor will the number of farmers. Increased global food production increases must come from productivity boosts. Researchers feel that productivity improvements from chemistry and genomics are unlikely to yield significant increases as they have in the past. They predict that the most likely area for these improvements are with precision farming techniques, notably precision planting and precision application of chemicals and water.
The term “Precision Agriculture” was coined in the late 1960s and 1970s in seminal research that projected that in the future farming would be driven by data with inputs and practices varied and optimized based on weather, measurements from the field, and accurate year over year yield measurements. Since then, many tools and technologies have been developed that have made true precision agriculture more and more practical. Precision RTK GPS can guide equipment with precision better than an inch. Drones and satellite mapping of fields using remote sensing can map out health and detect problems with the crops. In field IoT sensors will stream live data (such as our partners Soil Scout). Soil genomics and analysis can analyze macro and micro nutrient content of the soil and track the genetics of the soil microbiome (like our friends at Trace Genomics). Robotic and automated farming equipment (like our partners at Monarch Tractor and Husqvarna are building) can vary applications and planting according to precomputed variable rate application maps. Despite all these breakthroughs, precision farming techniques still have a low penetration.
There are many reasons for this (more than could be discussed in this article!) but one of them is inadequate connectivity. Most of these modern technologies rely on access to the internet and in many cases it just isn’t possible. For decades subsidies and programs have been rolled out to improve rural connectivity but the reality is that connecting up far flung areas is expensive, often labor intensive, and consequently from a pure business standpoint does not make sense for the connectivity providers. Even as infrastructure expands to more remote areas, there will always remain large swaths of rural america where conventional connectivity infrastructure is highly impractical.
Most of GreenSight’s data processing is done in the cloud. Several gigabytes of imagery data are uploaded from our aircraft after every flight to be processed and delivered to our customers. Our custom artificial intelligence analyses the data and informs farmers to problem areas. From many remote farm fields, uploading can be a slow process. We’ve invested heavily in the portability of our systems and our upcoming next generation aircraft will be capable of onboard processing, but despite this connectivity will still be needed to make data available for farmers and other automated agriculture systems. Advanced sensing systems like ours have to be able to integrate with connected robotic sprayers, harvesters and tractors, unlocking the productivity potential of precision agriculture. Humanity needs precision agriculture, and connected data-driven systems will be a big part of that revolution. Beyond the global necessity, the economics for farmers work too! A 2018 USDA studies indicate that connecting US farmland will unlock $50B in industry revenue.
We are extremely excited about Starlink and its potential to bring cost effective internet connectivity to farms and rural areas. Starlink levels the playing field for rural areas, enabling high speed connectivity everywhere. No longer will farmers have to wait for high speed wired connectivity to come to their area or install a complex mesh network on their property. IoT data can be streamed from fields as easily as it now streams from urban homes. Starlink will be a catalyzing force for chance, advancing access to precision agriculture globally and contributing to solving global food challenges.
Further notes and resources:
- Read more on the benefits of rural e-connectivity on the USDA website.
- For more information about precision agriculture, Mulla, David & Khosla, Raj. (2015). Historical Evolution and Recent Advances in Precision Farming. 10.1201/b18759-2 is a great reference.
- Original 1967 book on variable rate fertilizer application: Melsted, S. W. 1967. The philosophy of soil testing, pp. 13–23. Soil Testing and Plant Analysis Part I. SSSA Special Publication Series No. 2. Soil Science Society of America, Inc., Madison, WI.