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Agriculture’s digital revolution from space

July 13, 2020

From farm to fork, food is the least digitized supply chain. In agriculture, decisions on the farm are largely made through human observation and trial and error as they have been for thousands of years. However, the recent proliferation of smart devices like phones, wearables, tablets, robotics, and inexpensive yet sophisticated sensors now make untethered digital data collection possible. Combine this with the recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics, and for the first time in human history, it’s now practical to digitize agriculture and its supply chain.

By deploying internet-connected sensors and robotics into farm fields we can continuously collect data about crops and growing conditions: for example, monitor crop and soil health, detect pests, and automate tasks like irrigation, fertilizing, and harvesting. These technologies significantly reduce the time spent and cost, which increases the operational efficiency of the farm. Growers can now make data-informed decisions about production to optimize for profitability and market-driven volume. These technologies also significantly reduce the waste of precious resources like water.

Imagine a world where farmers no longer are incentivized to grow as much as possible and shove it all into the beginning of the supply chain — where much of that production is left to rot in the farm field for lack of a buyer.

Digital technologies reduce that waste. According to the most recent studies, the United States and the EU waste 40% of the food grown: a whopping 63 million tons in the US and 88 Million tons in the EU annually. Digitized and sophisticated forecasts will inform farmers on how much to grow and when. This will lead to less waste across the supply chain. It will also make farming profitable again.

Digital data, stored in the cloud and easily accessible and shareable along the supply chain, means a more transparent food supply. Aggregate this data across growing regions and insurers can accurately price crop insurance and financial products for growers. This cost savings is another improvement in operational efficiency for farms.

Since 2012, nearly $56B has been invested in technology startups focused on digitizing agriculture. It’s not for a lack of technical innovation and investment that food continues to be the least digitized supply chain. It is because of this significant barrier: the lack of global, affordable communications infrastructure.

Rural connectivity in the United States is renowned for being unreliable and frequently nonexistent. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 29% of farms lack an internet connection altogether, and the Federal Communications Commission states that 39% of rural Americans lack the high-speed connections necessary to upload/download data. While rural dwellers lack sufficient connectivity, the problem is even worse in the donut of land around rural towns where the farm fields lie: a complete lack of any cellular network connectivity. Farm fields or open oceans where people don’t reside are the last priority for telecommunications companies. But now, with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) where ordinary devices can be connected to the internet to monitor, collect, and send data, network connectivity is needed everywhere, not just where people permanently reside.

Bringing network connectivity to lightly populated or unpopulated areas is a significant challenge. I’ve spent 4 years visiting farms throughout many parts of the world. While some had decent Internet connections — mostly in main buildings — many lacked connectivity entirely out in the field. The reason is that supporting infrastructure like electricity and roads are lacking. The communications network is not the only infrastructure required to be built.

Ground-based network solutions like cellular and low-power terrestrial networks like Sigfox and LoRa-WAN have limited range, where their signals only travel a few dozens of miles. Therefore, a substantial number of towers are required to provide sufficient coverage to areas that span millions of square miles. Those towers require electricity to power them and roads to reach them. Land-based solutions all need line-of-sight between towers and to ground devices, so even greater numbers of towers are needed where that land has a variety of terrain like mountains, hills, or trees. Today these terrestrial solutions only cover 10% of the global area of Earth.

You cannot bring network connectivity everywhere it’s needed by simply extending it one tower at a time on the ground. With this approach, you will never get true global coverage across expansive farmlands or the open ocean where food production still happens in the form of fishing, aquaculture, transoceanic shipping, and ocean farming (yes, it’s a thing!).

Bringing network connectivity to every point on Earth can only be achieved from space, because satellites have large enough footprints to cover the entire globe with only a few hundred satellites from Low Earth Orbit.

The problem with connectivity from space, however, is that it has been incredibly expensive. The estimated cost to build and launch a single satellite ranges from $50M to $400M (Source: Globalcom), and it can cost billions of dollars to deploy the entire constellation. This translates into very expensive satellite communications solutions that are not affordable to agriculture. To bring down that cost you need two fundamental innovations in satellite technology: 1) an incredible miniaturization so that 2) the cost to launch is significantly less expensive.

Swarm created the world’s tiniest satellites in orbit. The Swarm 1/4U SpaceBEEs are 12x smaller than the next smallest commercial communications satellites. This makes them a tiny fraction of the school bus sized spacecraft most of us are accustomed to seeing. Rocket launches are priced based on the mass and volume of satellites. This enables extremely unique launch economics for Swarm. They currently have 7 satellites on orbit and because they are fully funded, are planning to deploy several more over the next few years.

A Swarm SpaceBee Satellite
Swarm Technologies 1/4U SpaceBEE: The world’s tiniest satellite.

Swarm built its network and hardware solutions with a focus on the growing applications emerging in IoT. The Swarm ground devices aren’t accompanied by the challenges associated with most operators’ large, heavy, and power-hungry designs. While most terrestrial networks struggle to reach adequate coverage, Swarm’s space-based network covers 100% of the globe.

I’ve watched Swarm test and pilot its solution with companies in the food and agriculture sectors, and the results are astounding. The team is developing offerings well-suited to solve a range of applications across farmlands and oceans worldwide. Swarm recently raised a $25M Series A to accelerate its development and market entry, and the agriculture industry is showing up as an early adopter for its satellite IoT solutions.

With more than 30 billion IoT devices projected to come online by 2020 and connected device applications maturing across the AgTech space, the digital revolution of our food supply is practical and possible. While most of us don’t readily connect farming and space, it is precisely this unlikely combination that has the potential to feed our growing population. In fact, the “space to farm to fork” supply chain may be the reinvention of how we feed the world.