Mobile/Wireless Update: Real-Time Realities

In the world of technology, October 7, 2014, was a red letter day. According to most sources, this was the date when the number of mobile devices present around the globe topped 7.22 billion. Significantly, this marked the date that this number was actually higher than the total number of people living on Planet Earth, which most researchers put at somewhere between 7.19 and 7.2 billion. As Kevin Kimberlin, Chairman of Spencer Trask & Co., said on that day: “No other technology has impacted us like the mobile phone. It’s the fastest growing man-made phenomenon ever — from zero to 7.2 billion in three decades.”

Naturally, with such widespread acceptance, mobile devices have worked their way into virtually every aspect of modern life, including agriculture. Of course, this isn’t exactly surprising. In fact, many market watchers have predicted that technology would take on this level of importance for several years. “This means technology will play an increasing role in all markets, including agriculture,” James Heseman, Senior Vice President, U.S. & Canada Sales for John Deere Credit, told attendees at an industry event back in 2010.

Agustina Sacerdote, Granular
Agustina Sacerdote, Granular

Still, growers have not embraced the mobile device revolution for their entire on-farm operations just yet. In fact, according to Agustina Sacerdote, Marketing Manager for Granular, a farm management software provider, this remains the case even in the marketplace of 2016. “Some growers are hesitant to change what has worked for them over the years and still rely on pen and paper to manage their farms,” says Sacerdote. “And let’s face it – using pen and paper is free, so there’s not a huge cost or learning curve associated with it.”

Network Limitations

But perhaps more importantly than simply “remaining with what they know,” others in the technology marketplace say that the reluctance to accept mobile/wireless communications in agriculture has had more to do with technological limitations than outright rejection.

“Not too many years ago, growers and others in agriculture weren’t that interested in using wireless for all their needs because many of them couldn’t even make calls to someone on their mobile phone reliably, much less transmit data over them,” says T.J. Schulte, Marketing Manager for Trimble Agriculture, providers of the Connected Farm management system. He adds that, in the past, many growers needed to install multiple signal boosters on their properties to try to correct this issue.

T.J. Schulte Trimble
T.J. Schulte, Trimble Agriculture

Of course, this “service limitation in rural or remote areas” has largely been corrected, particularly as wireless providers have expanded their networks from 3G to 4G capabilities. The third generation of mobile networks, 3G came into use across much of the U.S. back in 2003, offering Internet speeds anywhere between 144K and 400K bytes per second. But as of 2015, 4G is rapidly becoming the standard bearer for mobile networks across most of the country. Most of the major carriers now feature such networks, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. According to the experts, the big advantage 4G offers over 3G is its ability to transfer large amounts of data from laptops to mobile devices in a short amount of time. This includes video streaming.

As Schulte points out, this has not only improved wireless communications for the entire country, but agriculture in particular. “We have definitely seen a bigger desire on the part of the grower community to use wireless communications in new and different ways the past few years,” he says. “And this is being made much more successful because there is more cellular coverage across the countryside than was ever possible before.”

Ryan Molitor, Manager of Customer Experience for Raven Industries, agrees with this assessment. In fact, his company recently introduced a 4G Field Hub for its popular Slingshot unit to tie into this developing trend. “We still operate as not all wireless communication is the same,” says Molitor. “But with our 4G Slingshot, we can offer extra speed to our customers, which is becoming more important as everyone wants things provided to them faster than in the past.”

The Important Data Debate

With network reliability now greatly improved, the next big challenge for data providers to address concerns the data itself. “Just collecting data doesn’t give you anything,” says Dr. Marina Barnes, Vice President of Marketing for FarmersEdge, providers of the Precision Solutions and FarmCommand services. “You have to have something analyze all that data for you for it to be turned into something useful.”

Marina Barnes, FarmersEdge
Marina Barnes, FarmersEdge

Then there’s the “real-time” factor, she adds. “We run our business on the 20-minute rule when it comes to getting information to the user,” says Barnes. “If you can’t get your technical data to work for the farmer within the first 20 minutes after he receives it, he’s probably never going to use it. That’s why our Precision Solutions services provide mobile device access, so that our users can make all their important field decisions on-the-fly without a problem.”

To this, says Trimble’s Schulte, add what data is actually needed. “This is a really important question,” he says. “Most users have got all kinds of systems and sensors all over their field machines that can create piles upon piles of data sets. But what does the grower really want and how can we as a service provider help him use all this to make an informed decision? Most growers don’t want megabytes and gigabytes of data on their home computers that doesn’t mean anything, and we need to help him ultimately determine which is which. That’s a big part of what we are doing with our Connected Farm product.”

Another such system that offers to effectively sort data for growers using a mobile platform is ClearAg Mobile from Iteris, Inc. A grower analytics application, ClearAg Mobile uses weather, water, soil, and crop growth information to enable users and their ag retailers to improve the management of their fields. “ClearAg Mobile provides growers with precise information at the exact time they need it to minimize the risks and maximize productivity throughout the entire crop growing season,” says Tom Blair, Senior Vice President of Iteris’ Performance Analytics Division. “Essentially, ClearAg Mobile is a grower’s ‘smart farm advisor.’”

With mobile devices now the most prevalent technology on the planet, many agricultural market watchers expect even more developments to occur on the next few years as well. “This is only the beginning of a new brand phase for all of agriculture,” says Bob McClure, Chief Data Specialist for FarmLink. “You are already seeing much faster ways to move data back and forth between the field and customer. There’s more to be done, that’s for sure, but it is definitely going to be exciting to watch what develops next.”

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