5G networks for autonomous and resilient rural applications

The goal of the 5G.NATURAL research project is to implement an autonomous swarm of agricultural machines networked by means of 5G and to provide a business case for rural 5G networks.

Initial situation

Feeding the growing world population is a scientific and economic challenge. The target variables to be optimized are the yield that can be harvested on a given area and the reduction of the resources used for this purpose. One solution to these problems is the use of miniaturized, autonomous modular harvesting robots.

Solution approach

The harvesting robots can be networked to form a swarm of machines that autonomously cultivates large but parceled areas and thus prevents personnel bottlenecks, or they can be used in smaller groups or individually to mechanize the harvesting process for small field sizes. Positive side effects here are increased resilience through the use of several simple machines instead of one large one (redundancy in case of failure scenario) as well as the possibility of cultivation under glass due to smaller dimensions of the machines (water and resource savings). Due to smaller machines, agricultural areas can be newly established in a species-appropriate manner and extensive resource use can be reduced by creating parceled areas with renaturalized field margins. The use of 5G in combination with swarms consisting of small harvesters thus has a direct impact on more ecological sustainability: increased plant (e.g. corn poppy) and insect diversity (e.g. admiral) as well as growing small game populations (e.g. pheasant or partridge).

Expected result

The expected outcome will consist of five solution elements, each of which will require different competencies, combine tasks, and must work together seamlessly in the target state to be implemented:

  1. Spinning up a functioning 5G network where machines can communicate,
  2. the connection of the harvesters to the network,
  3. the implementation of hardware and software for autonomous driving in a swarm,
  4. the development of a web platform in which use cases such as the supervision of the swarm are offered to the user as a service
  5. as well as the development of the business case calculator for rural 5G networks, which provides information about the benefits of the implemented infrastructure.

Benefits for the target group

Current studies on the strategic expansion of 5G assume a positive cost-benefit ratio for the use case of agriculture, with the economic benefits exceeding the costs by up to five times; in this context, the networking of autonomous robots is cited as one of the core use cases for the creation of this benefit. In addition to the purely economic aspect, there are also contributions to sustainability through increased efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the food production process, and increased biodiversity through parcelization with green strip separation, as well as socioeconomic factors such as supporting rural industries. By developing a tool to determine the benefits of rural 5G networks, the project also aims to make the results easily transferable and to support rapid deployment.

The business case calculator in particular also highlights the limits of the new technology. It is true that the economic potential of 5G applications in rural areas is great. However, the strategy of rolling out the network with attention to high coverage of population leads to current undersupply in rural areas. To contribute to solving this challenge, the collected knowledge on the economic configuration of rural 5G networks will be processed and disseminated. By researching and generalizing the factors influencing the return on investment (ROI) of rural 5G networks to create a business case calculator, stakeholders will be empowered who want to aggregate the necessary subsidies for the deployment of 5G networks in their region.