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March 15, 2022

IoT on the Farm – Precision Agriculture: An Interview with Rob Tiffany

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

In this episode, we chat with Rob Tiffany and the importance of IoT, data, and connectivity when it comes to agriculture and precision farming in rural communities.

  • Precision Agriculture working with farmers
  • Industrial Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Broadband Connectivity Critical to Measurement
  • Starlink as a viable option?
  • Farmers benefiting from Federal broadband subsidies
  • Broadband technology affordable for all
  • IoT measurement in rural areas

Pete Pizzutillo:

Welcome to the Broadband Bunch, a podcast about broadband and how it impacts all of us. Join us to learn about the state of the industry and the latest innovations and trends. Connect with the thought leaders, pioneers, and policymakers helping to shape your future through broadband.

Pete Pizzutillo:

The Broadband Bunch at Mountain Connect 2021, brought to you by ETI Software, your zero-touch automation experts. By Calix, Simplify, Excite, Grow. By DXTEL, creators of the Harper Broadband Marketing Library. By ITK Solutions Group, Process First, Technology Second. And by Utopia Fiber, Building a More Connected Nation.

Rob Tiffany:

My name’s Rob Tiffany. I’m the Vice President and Head of IoT strategy at Ericsson, which is a Swedish company that makes all that 5G stuff everybody’s talking about.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I’ve heard about it. Yes.

Rob Tiffany:

Yes. It might be a thing, I don’t know.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Rob, thanks for joining the Broadband Bunch. We’re at Mountain Connect 2021 here in lovely Keystone, Colorado. Have you been to this event before?

Rob Tiffany:

Many years ago, I’m old friends with Jeff.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Okay.

Rob Tiffany:

And it was back when I used to work at Microsoft. And the last time I was here, it was in this same location. It might have been five years ago, maybe four. I don’t know.

Pete Pizzutillo:

How has it changed?

Rob Tiffany:

It seems similar, but it’s just great to see real people for a change. It’s been a while. Lots of Zoom, I can’t tell you how many Zoom keynotes I’ve done over the last 18 months, right?

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. You can feel the energy. People actually want to talk to you and interact. We’ve been starving for it. So it is nice to be back.

Rob Tiffany:

Absolutely. But yeah, a lot of great people here, a lot of great vendors here, great technology, a lot of optimism.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah.

Rob Tiffany:

I can feel it.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Yeah. You just got done a panel discussion over the launch talking about technology in general, but it was a pretty spirited conversation. And some of the stuff that you talked about, I thought was really interesting around precision agriculture.

Rob Tiffany:

Right.

Industrial Internet of Things – Precision Agriculture

Pete Pizzutillo:

So precision ag, as people call it. And so just tell us a little bit about how you’re working in that field and some of the things that you’re seeing happening now, that may not have been happening five years ago.

Rob Tiffany:

I think how I got pulled into it, so I do all this internet of things stuff, and that’s a lot of my background at Microsoft and Hitachi has been an industrial IoT, and stuff like that. But started working with farmers. And precision ag, really, it’s a bunch of different things. First, you step back and look at what’s the Uber problem that we’ve got to solve. Business as usual, part of it is a population, whatever we’ve got now, seven something billion people. And they expect us to be at nine or something in a couple of decades. And so part of the takeaway was we need to double the amount of food production, which is a pretty tall order. And at the same time, lots of us deal with scarcity in business and life. It might be money or other things.

Rob Tiffany:

But in farming, it’s, what are the inputs? I’m growing something in the ground. I need sunlight. I need water. I need good soil, stuff like that. And in the past they’ve used fertilizer, they’ve put chemicals down for pests. And so they’ve had to rethink a lot of things, about how to do agriculture moving forward. Obviously, they need to increase their crop yields. They will probably have to do it with less water. Anybody who’s watching what’s going on in California right now on the San Joaquin valley. It’s heartbreaking. There’s no water. Hey, here we are in the Rocky Mountains, where the water begins for a whole bunch of the United States. Cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, LA, and most of Southern California, wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the Colorado River. And all that agriculture, this amazing place in the central valley of California, which produces so much, the water’s gone.

Rob Tiffany:

They’ve been draining, the aquifers. They’ve been pulling water. They rely on snow melts and things like that. And so the water’s a big deal. And so for them, they pay for water. A lot of people don’t even think about buying water. Where I live in Washington State, we have so much water. It’s crazy. We have just tons of water. And it’s like free. And so they don’t think about it as much. But California it’s like gold. And so they’re, all right, I got to get more water. I can’t afford it. And so precision means, instead of just mindlessly sprinkling all your crops, or mindlessly flooding things or whatever, it’s I have to be really thoughtful about where I put my water. Because now it’s a precious resource. You might argue that freshwater might be the most precious resource on the whole planet. I know people take it for granted. And they probably never think of it like that, but it might become that way. I don’t know.

Broadband Municipal Leader: Understanding the importance of IoT

Pete Pizzutillo:

No, I think it’s become more and more apparent. What’s striking to me, is that we’re surrounded by a lot of this municipal leadership around here, that are struggling with how do they serve their communities better broadband and understand everything that goes into broadband.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And nowhere, we’re talking about a farming community, which my bias seems a little less sophisticated than most, but they seem to be leading the way in some of these municipal discussions around, hey, we need to get to precision agriculture. This is a part of our economic foundation and pushing their leadership and partners into this thinking. I mean-

Rob Tiffany:

Absolutely. I think they’re under the gun. I think it was a bunch of science projects in the last decade. Kicking the tires when you saw the internet things. Really kick off in earnest maybe 10 years ago, whatever. It was all too expensive. It’s still probably too expensive today. So the things I see, and the things I’ve worked with, soil moisture is a big thing. And there’s a wide range in cost there. There are really cheap soil moisture sensors you can put in the ground for under 10 bucks. And then there are ones that cost $1,000. When you think just what this whole thing is, it’s all IoT. It’s, I’ve got some kind of to compute, microcontroller, whatever, with sensors attached to it and software. And then I need some kind of connectivity. And that’s why we’re all here.

Rob Tiffany:

People may have great connectivity in the cities, but on these farms, they may have nothing. And so IoT can get them that knowledge they need. Because IoT’s about measuring, so that I can take an action. So I’m measuring, hey, this part of my farm needs the water, but this other part they’re good to go. So I don’t need to needlessly waste expensive water. Or hey, it turns out I don’t need fertilizer. Or I don’t need to put down pesticide here. Because they want to limit that as well. So it’s all things like that. It all starts with measuring. You have to know something before you can take action. And so there’s the connectivity part of it, is so critical. And there’s the software part of it, there’s analytics that helps drive decisions. But if you don’t have connectivity, none of this stuff works.

Rob Tiffany:

And so it’s a real struggle. So I’ll spend time in these different farms, and some of them will have a little bit of cellular coverage. But even when they do, it doesn’t mean that’s always the right option because, and I’m just repeating what I hear from them, it’s, well, it’s just too expensive. I’m having to get data plans. For sensors, it’s not the same as a person with an iPhone or an Android device. And so mobile operators, they certainly have talked a good game over the years. But they haven’t brought down the price for IoT device-type data plans like you’d expect. I’ve seen some MVNOs do some clever things. You’ve always heard about this thing, the idea of a global SIM. Early days of IoT, there were people doing that and you’re basically roaming on networks all over the place. Turns out mobile operators around the world don’t actually like you to roam on their network. They do that as a convenience. It’s all about contracts.

Broadband Connectivity is Critical to Measurement for Rural Agriculture

Rob Tiffany:

So you’re seeing a lot of people do it. We do that at Erickson, where I work. We have a global deal for connection management. But I’ve seen some that are also tackling, not only do I get a SIM that works everywhere, but I’m going to beat up on the price. And so, one thing I’ve worked with recently, it was a few weeks ago, out at a hops farm. We used a startup that’s charging one penny per megabyte, for these cellular IoT devices. That was the first time I’d seen something semi-reasonable, in my life. And I’ve always been saying it to the operators, listen your $30 a month. You’re still not close. It needs to be pennies. Because these farmers, want to scatter thousands of sensors.

Pete Pizzutillo:

If they make it more addressable, then they can scale. That’s the revenue opportunity that they’re missing, from trying to not meet the nuance in the pricing models.

Starlink: Possible Alternative Broadband Solution

Rob Tiffany:

The pricing models, they’re just not able to seize that market. So I’ve seen that. That’s interesting and cool, but you don’t always have cellular coverage. The farmers have to be really resourceful. There’s not a lot of broadband. There’s no fiber.

Pete Pizzutillo:

What about Starlink? Is that an option?

Rob Tiffany:

It is. And they’re talking about it. I’ll probably get fired for saying this, but people talk about what’s 6G going to be? And I go, it could be something like Starlink. Being in the tech industry, most of my career at Microsoft and doing startups, there’s always some barbarian at your gate, some disruptive technology. And early on you might make fun of it, or it doesn’t seem realistic. And then it eats your lunch.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Amazon is one of them, right? ASOS was a joke for a long period of time, and then you just look at them now.

Rob Tiffany:

Absolutely. And so Starlink, a lot of people on ag are looking at Starlink, because it works everywhere.

Farmers Benefiting from Federal Broadband Subsidies

Pete Pizzutillo:

A lot. The stuff is really an option that’s emerging. What about funding? There are a lot of conversations around all the funding that’s coming through the Federal Government. Are the farmers in line to benefit from any of those subsidies?

Rob Tiffany:

They are. And it’s interesting. You work with different types of farmers. I’ve worked with the big, mega-farms where they seem pretty well off. They have tons of land, they’ve got all the best equipment and they don’t seem to have money problems. But then you have your typical, most mom-and-pop farms. Right. And they’re barely breaking even, if they’re lucky, year to year. I feel like we have to succeed with them, for us to succeed at all. It’s not good enough.

Rob Tiffany:

I see these demonstrations of all these… You’ll see drones doing flyovers of orchards, and they do spectral analysis. And you see all these colors and they can tell you what’s going on with the leaf health. And they can tell you the density of apples on a tree. They can also see diseases early on, like fireblight, that could wipe people out. It’s great. And it sounds like, yeah, I’m all in with drones. Oh, it turns out 30 minutes of drone time costs a lot of money. Way more than you thought. And so there’s a lot of great technologies. They’re currently unaffordable. They just are. Just to the regular mom-and-pop farm. And so from my perspective, we have got to Walmart the heck out of devices, connectivity, everything. And beat down those costs, if we want to have wide acceptance.

IoT measurement in rural America on small farms

Pete Pizzutillo:

So what’s the tipping point, where we get to enough scale where economies of scale that all people can benefit from it, right?

Rob Tiffany:

Yeah, and there are so many components in doing this IoT measurement thing. And everybody’s got their hand out that wants to get paid. From hardware microcontrollers to the sensors, short-range, wireless, edge gateways, platforms, analytics, and you name it.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And the muni should be paying attention to the internet of things. Because sensors apply… It’s just one use case, right? If you’re in town and you have fire prevention, or you have crime, or smoke detection, the model that you can help the farmers to adopt and to really learn a lot, there’s a ton of benefit on the backend for you all.

Rob Tiffany:

Absolutely. And IoT on the farm isn’t just about being out in the field or the orchard. It could be cameras looking at things instead of drones, sheep cameras. Why not?

Pete Pizzutillo:

Is that a real thing?

Rob Tiffany:

Just go to Staples and grab a webcam and put it out there. But a lot of times, a lot of people assume it’s all, it’s a full-motion video and I need 5G or something like that. And that’s just not real. Sometimes it could even be a black and white photo, of things. And then, you’re right. You’re just getting little bits of data, temperature, humidity, soil moisture, pH, things like that. We’re not talking rocket science here. But agriculture, there are adjacent places to it. There’s the packing house. And some having a huge background in industrial IoT, in manufacturing, I go into a packing house, the apples come in from the orchard and they go on these conveyor belts and I go, oh, this looks like a factory.

Rob Tiffany:

This looks like process manufacturing. And so there’s lots of room to help the agriculture community there because you instrument machines. Right now, people are using machines in these packing houses, conveyor belts, all kinds of cool stuff. And guess what they do, they run them until they fail until they just break and stop working. Well, God forbid if they break during harvest time for them when it’s really critical. And so a lot of them aren’t plugged into IoT as much as maybe giant manufacturers have been. And so when you talk to them, I was, well if we could instrument this conveyor belt, and we’re not talking machine learning stuff. I’m just saying early warning. Things are starting to wear down, bearings, and so, you know what, it’s probably going to fail in the next few weeks, just something like that.

Pete Pizzutillo:

I think there’s a lot, out there. I saw this documentary on pig farmers and they were using cameras to figure out the mood of the pig. Because apparently happy pigs taste better.

Rob Tiffany:

There you go.

Pete Pizzutillo:

We all like good bacon. But a residual to that is they collected all of this footage of pig faces. They had a camera where the pigs would drink. And so they’re measuring all the nuances in the faces, and they were really, really good at detecting pigs. Because it’s hard because otherwise, you have to mark their ears and stuff.

Rob Tiffany:

Good point.

Pete Pizzutillo:

But the outcome of that is it really advanced facial recognition. Because now you have this data set and you’re evolving, evolving. And it’s just like everyone attributes NASA to Velcro. You really don’t know, when you invest in an area really specifically, what’s the residual outcome that benefits us collectively.

Rob Tiffany:

No, you’re absolutely right. We chatted earlier, just climate change, or all these things that are bigger things that are happening to us. Obviously, this puts stress on farmers and obviously, we were just talking about water shortages. We’ve been seeing all the fires. You mentioned fire detection. I’ve seen some innovative deals. You want to have sensors scattered throughout forests, but they can’t be expensive, and it can’t be some rocket science thing. I’ve seen stuff where they’re using cameras. I’ve seen them where they’re just measuring temperature and humidity, and looking for wild fluctuations in humidity, as a sign that fire might be happening. Or heck, just if you’re in a National Park and people are walking around, have something with a big red button on it that says, hey, I see a fire, right? Something, Tell the fire… Something’s smoking. Where you nip it in the bud, early on.

Pete Pizzutillo:

And think about the Dixie fire, that’s burning right now, it’s up to 500,000 acres. What’s the economic impact of that? So if you take a portion of that and you get predictive. And that’s the thing that drives us crazy, as technologists, is that we’re always on the defense. And we really have the wherewithal, the ability, to be proactive. And it just takes so many compelling events for us to decide to be on the forefront, rather than on our back heel.

Rob Tiffany:

We’re always on our heels. Yes, I often say, and it’s appropriate with the fire there, people, they just don’t do anything until their own house is on fire. And then they’re, oh my God, all hands on deck, let’s go do it. And it’s, well you knew this was coming.

Pete Pizzutillo:

Well, I hope the funding that’s coming down, we’re in the middle of all waiting to hear how that plays out. I hope that helps us adopt a predictive mentality. And I appreciate you jumping in and giving us your take.

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