NewsIOT & agricultural communication networks in MAGDA

IOT & agricultural communication networks in MAGDA

Communication networks are ubiquitous. They allow data to be transmitted between two terminals and are especially crucial to get information from agricultural crops that are typically located far from urban areas.

Understanding Networks for IoT

Understanding networks means primarily considering three factors: energy (required to send data), range (distance at which transmission and reception occur), and bandwidth (quantity of data to be transmitted). As one might expect, the perfect network combining low energy consumption, very long range, and high throughput does not exist.

To transmit data over long distances or in large quantities, a significant amount of energy is required. In comparison, reducing the amount of energy allows for the transmission of a small amount of data over long distances (referred to as low-bandwidth networks).

Thus, the territory is covered by antennas that are responsible for receiving and transmitting data. The density of these antennas depends on the type of network used and the number of people to be covered. To further complicate installations, communication is easily obstructed by terrain features; therefore, it is necessary to strategically place antennas and/or multiply them to ensure coverage of the targeted territory.

Example of theoric coverage for 2G connectivity for an operator (SFR) with the antenna position, over the French demo site for MAGDA (source ARCEP), some areas are more or less covered, depending on the topography, but there is theoretically no blank zone.

Which networks for agriculture?

Telecommunication network operators aim to cover a certain population rate. This objective is not compatible with the concept of connected objects in agriculture since only a small proportion of the territory is actually covered. The amount of data to be transmitted is also highly variable depending on the type of connected object. It can range from simply one message per day to indicate proper functioning or an alert message, to the transmission of a short video stream. This variety of uses has led to the emergence of different networks.

In contrast to the increasing amount of data with 2G, 3G, and 4G, Toulouse-based Sigfox developed a 0G technology in 2010. This new communication protocol uses a free radio band (868 MHz) and reduces the exchanged data. Thus, with little energy, a connected object can transmit much further, so the French territory is quickly covered by antennas installed by Sigfox itself. However, the amount of transmitted data is lower, equivalent to a 10-character SMS – non-special characters – at a rate of about a hundred messages sent per day. Due to the low amount of data and the large number of objects, the subscription cost to the network is low (around 20 euros per object per year). In 2012, the LoRaWAN protocol exploited the same low-speed principle to offer a competing product, also more comprehensive (possibility to transmit more data with less range, or very little data with a long range). But unlike Sigfox, it is possible to deploy one’s own antennas to receive the data (at a reasonable cost and with some technical knowledge). It is only in recent years that some operators have been offering LoRa subscriptions.

In response, telecommunication operators have transformed their existing networks to offer a solution. 4G antennas can now use the 4G LTE-M and NB-IoT protocols. These two newcomers aim to decrease the amount of transmitted data and the energy consumption of objects while increasing the range compared to 4G. They fall between the classic 2G GSM network and low-speed networks.

It is worth noting that it is also entirely possible to use the historical 2G network. A connected object equipped with such technology will consume considerably more energy than with low-speed technologies. However, the advantage is that 2G is present worldwide. We are only just beginning to see it replaced by 4G LTE-M or NB-IoT in some countries (United States). In France, its dismantling would begin in 2025. The costs of a 2G subscription for connected objects have almost reached the subscription costs of a low-speed network today.

Paths forward

The 5G impacted the telecommunications world. This innovation brought several changes to the way the network is structured to cover all use cases of GSM networks (including IoT): an increasing number of connected devices, while enabling very high theoretical data rates for others. Additionally, 5G natively integrates LTE-M and NB-IOT protocols.

The use of 5G in agriculture will likely remain marginal. Coverage will be delayed, and for several more years, there should still be a mix of low-speed networks and LoRa/4G LTE-M/NB-IOT to cover primary use cases. A study conducted by the Agrotic Chair on this topic is available here.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation? Similar initiatives are emerging for the LoRa network. The goal is to eventually provide cost-effective global coverage for IoT data transmission through satellites. In this vein, we find companies like Kinéïs (from CLS – the Argos beacon) or Lacuna, which are moving towards the development of satellite IoT.

Author: Julien Orensanz (CAP2020)



IOT, communication networks, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, LoRaWAN