The project aims to boost agricultural technology through improved field connectivity

Field-Nets research team members pose in a soybean field on the east campus field with their millimeter wave (mmWave) radios with phased array antennas. From left: Santosh Pitla, Qiang Liu, Yufeng Ge, Christos Argyropoulos, Mehmet Can Vuran. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communications
AgTech-RFP-111422

LINCOLN, Neb. – Many farmers and agricultural experts see digital farming as the way of the future. Managing farms with sensors, drones and robots, artificial intelligence, advanced data analytics and more will be key to efficiently feeding the growing world population, expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

However, maximizing the potential of agricultural technology depends on a tool most fields lack: high-speed internet connections.

A Nebraska-based interdisciplinary research team led by computer engineer Mehmet Can Vuran is attempting to change that fact. The team includes Shuai Nie, Qiang Liu, Christos Argyropoulos, Yufeng Ge and Santosh Pitla. With a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the team is designing a next-generation wireless network for agricultural fields that would catalyze a range of digital farming technologies and power the businesses of countless farmers. Currently, at least two-thirds of farmers say they don’t have adequate internet connectivity to run their operations, and 25% of US farms have no internet at all.



Field-Nets research team members pose in a soybean field on the east campus field with their millimeter wave (mmWave) radios with phased array antennas. From left: Santosh Pitla, Qiang Liu, Yufeng Ge, Christos Argyropoulos, Mehmet Can Vuran. Photo by Craig Chandler/University Communications
AgTech-RFP-111422

“We started to redesign the wireless network according to the limitations and requirements of agricultural fields,” said Vuran, Jensen Chair and Professor of Computer Science. “Right now, the best farmers and researchers can do is grab wireless technologies from whatever is available in nearby urban environments. You are trying to use Wi-Fi or existing cellular connections that are not designed for use in the field. It’s like trying to put a square pin in a round hole.”

It’s a discrepancy because the two environments are very different. Urban connectivity uses the vertical infrastructure inherent in cities: tall buildings, streetlights and traffic lights house the necessary equipment. Agricultural fields lack this robust vertical infrastructure, making it significantly more difficult to build a network.



FIELD NETWORKS

In addition, agricultural fields are exposed to harsh environmental and weather conditions that can disrupt wireless connections. The type of crop, its growth stage and even a plant’s moisture content can also affect the signals. Vuran’s group is developing a wireless architecture called Field-Nets to address these challenges.

A cornerstone of their approach is the use of millimeter wave technology on farms. This technology, which is increasingly being used to support 5G connections in urban areas, sends signals on a bandwidth of the radio frequency spectrum that is not crowded. Ample bandwidth means fast gigabit-per-second signal transmission with minimal disruption.

Last summer, Vuran’s group conducted some of the very first experiments in millimeter wave technology in agricultural fields. These studies showed how easily the growth of corn and soybeans can affect these sensitive high-frequency signals, whose wavelengths are only millimeters long. The resulting datasets are publicly available to help other researchers and practitioners. With the NSF funding, Vuran’s team will develop the computer processing capabilities and complex algorithms needed to support robust and reliable connections.

EDGE COMPUTING

Another key strategy of Field-Nets is edge computing: a type of network architecture that moves computation and data storage closer to the data sources. Because rural environments lack what is known as backhaul—the high-speed connections between a remote location and the core network—cloud computing is a challenge. This is problematic because in the future, precision farming devices are expected to generate as much data as a typical urban environment.

Vuran’s solution is to move the processing to the “edge” of the network, which in this case means moving it to the farm. When a farm’s robots, sensors and other devices generate streams of data, it is processed and stored on-site to protect farmers’ privacy.

The team also ensures that the Field-Nets infrastructure only uses the spectrum when and where it is needed. Although there is still plenty of spectrum available in rural areas, this will change as digital farming becomes more dynamic. A crowded spectrum could hamper rural dwellers’ ability to use the internet and create a digital divide between farms and neighboring towns.

“We design with an understanding of this potential gap from the start. We need to adopt advanced spectrum sharing solutions from scratch,” Vuran said. “We don’t want to have to go back later and redesign spectrum sharing solutions, which has already happened in some urban settings. We learn from this history.”

BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

The project advances Vuran’s longer-term research mission, which is to bridge the original digital divide: the urban-rural divide. Of the 24 million Americans who don’t have high-speed Internet, 80% live in rural areas. As society increasingly relies on digital tools, the gap in internet access is exacerbating the gaps in wealth, education, healthcare, and more.

The work represents an increasingly important fusion of computer science and agriculture. To maintain its position at the forefront of agricultural innovation, Husker researchers are prioritizing increased partnerships between these two disciplines.

“Computer scientists and agricultural engineers will increasingly need to work together, and this is one of the first funded projects to represent this connection of hands,” said Pitla, associate professor of biological systems engineering.

Pitla, an expert in agricultural robotics, has developed small autonomous robots that plant seeds and apply fertilizer since he came to the university in 2014. Although the technology can function without connectivity, a reliable wireless infrastructure would unleash the robots’ full potential: they could communicate with each other or summon a drone to replenish supplies.

“Connectivity solutions could really amplify our work and catalyze and facilitate a lot of things, especially in terms of logistics and operational efficiencies,” he said.

The research group will test the Field-Nets infrastructure using Pitla’s technology.

The project includes partnerships with members of the Nebraska farming community, farmers and members of industry and will allow Husker students to train in a highly interdisciplinary environment.

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