Malaysian agritech — will 5G reap what NB-IoT sows?
- Boosting NB-IoT applications with 5G will greatly impact the Malaysian agriculture landscape, and possibly others around SEA
- “NB-IoT is a future-proof network technology that enables devices to operate in a large area with increased power efficiency for off-the-power-grid use” explains Malaysian researcher
A mix of factors derailed the Malaysian agriculture sector in 2020. Despite what should have been strong local demand for fresh produce as people needed to cook more during the lockdown, a lot of local produce also went to waste since restrictions on crossing state lines were being enforced.
Even with that, agriculture remains one of the cornerstones of the Malaysian economy, consistently contributing between 7% and 12% to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). But still, the outbreak of the pandemic has resulted in the sector reporting an estimated income loss of RM0.5 billion (US$ 120,235,700) this year compared with 2019.
The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) is looking to expand the capabilities of Malaysia’s agriculture sector, and modernize its processes along Industry 4.0 guidelines to be fast, agile, and sustainable.
Hence, MARDI is working with Malaysian telco service provider Maxis to explore using 5G network capabilities to complement agriculture technology (or agritech) solutions – in this case, collecting data from the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and actuators deployed within a smart agritech system, a system that allows modern farmers to efficiently monitor plant growth and to sustainably apply agricultural ingredients like fertilizers and pesticides.
“Smart farming allows us to quantify the variables that exist on your land or farming operation, such as soil fertility, weather patterns, temperature, humidity, rainfall and wind speed,” said Dr Ahmad Safuan Bujang, the deputy director of the smart and precision farming program under the engineering research center of MARDI.
“With these sensors in place, you will be able to digitally acquire all of this information and put it into a system to monitor and study. This is the lowest level of tech adoption and as you go up the tech ladder, you will be able to have a system that facilitates what you do on the field.”
MARDI and Maxis are researching 5G usage with agritech at the MARDI Langkawi Agro Technology Park, a grape fertigation plot cultivated under a rain shelter. Sensors were placed around the Park to measure soil moisture, water pH, and ambient temperature levels, and the data collected using Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) was then deposited into a cloud server for data visualization and analysis.
NB-IoT and agritech
So what exactly is NB-IoT and how does its use differ from traditional farming practices?
“NB-IoT is a future-proof network technology that enables devices to operate in a large area with increased power efficiency for off-the-power-grid use. This trait enables an optimized network of sensors in the agriculture industry. With the implementation of these smart farming technologies, modern farmers would be able to monitor and manage their crops remotely for better work efficiency,” said Safuan.
What is happening at MARDI Langkawi is two-pronged, he said. “One is the digitalization of the processes, and the other is the exploration of data connectivity through NB-IoT. We are utilizing this technology to obtain data that we need from equipment and sensors, which can give us information on how well we are managing the crop growth using its energy-efficient operation and wide in-depth coverage capability.”
The hope is that once 5G is available in Malaysia, agritech systems that utilize NB-IoT will be able to get the most out of 5G connectivity, due to the low energy consumption needs of the tech. Safuan adds that NB-IoT’s low bandwidth requirements can even be used on the existing 4G LTE networks, so farmers in rural communities can also make use of the technology.
Indeed, the agritech solutions being developed by MARDI with Maxis’ help will impact smallholder farmers, micro-entrepreneurs, and others in the rural community ecosystem the most. The R&D at MARDI Langkawi Agro Technology Park will hopefully key findings from the data that can be used to further cultivate and implement low-cost solutions that can be applied widely like NB-IoT.
But once 5G networks are up and running in Malaysia, farmers who can leverage 5G should be seeing even bigger ‘yields’ from NB-IoT.