Aerial farm

Midwestern researchers bet the farm on ag connectivity projects

Emerging agricultural technologies are designed to improve farm productivity and sustainability. But much modern agtech needs wireless connectivity to produce optimal results, and service is often lacking in rural areas. Iowa and Missouri researchers are among those aiming to improve rural broadband to make farming safer, more efficient, and more sustainable.

Missouri University of Science and Technology researchers are using $1.5 million in National Science Foundation funding to develop machine learning-enabled network infrastructure that lets smart and connected farms improve timely data sharing. The network covers 50 square miles of Iowa farmland where 10 corn and soybean farms are located. It uses multi-band dynamic spectrum access, meaning it can harness many wireless radio frequencies — including some unlicensed ones that typically only are accessible in rural areas.

“We’re developing a communication infrastructure using drones and Wi-Fi-enabled farm machinery to monitor large areas of land and improve real-time data collection,” Sajal Das, computer science professor at Missouri S&T, said in a news release. “Many farms have cameras and sensors on the ground to monitor hazards, but they don’t have the capability to transmit data very far because broadband access is limited.” 

The system also monitors water, fertilizer, and pesticide needs and use, which helps farmers cut costs and boost environmental efforts by conserving resources.

At Iowa State University, researchers are using $16 million in funding from Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research to deploy infrastructure that will provide wireless coverage up to 6 miles away. All types of rural residents can use the network, including farmers who can tap into it to run soil and plant monitoring sensors or robots in the field.

Hongwei Zhang, Iowa State electrical and computer engineering professor, likes to refer to the project as “Broadband Prairie,” which puts a Midwestern spin on “Silicon Valley.” He notes that Silicon Valley didn’t just spring up, but rather it developed over decades from dedicated research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Broadband Prairie should follow a similar playbook, he said in a news release.

“It’s good for Iowa State to think about how we can do the same,” Zhang said. “We need to be strategic so we don’t let this opportunity slip away.”