Future Tech & InnovationCategory4 min read

Together, We Go Far: How a Small Farming Community Is Sowing the Seeds for the Future of Agriculture

Angela LeafFebruary 17, 2021

A familiar Pacific Northwest fog blankets Swan Trail Farms. Rain falls gently on the strawberry fields. A goat bleats off in the distance. And tucked away in a shed, a 5G-enabled edge platform hums as it processes thousands of data points every second.

Welcome to the future of farming.

Located outside of Seattle, Swan Trail Farms is a beneficiary of the Snohomish County 5G Food Resiliency Project. The project uses technology to help local growers produce food more efficiently and safely. At the center of the initiative is the development of a 5G communications and edge computing platform. The testing of new applications, devices, and services focuses on:

  • Crop yield improvement.
  • Labor efficiency.
  • Resource utilization.

Developing the platform is the 5G Open Innovation Lab. A team of developers, startups, enterprises, academia, and government institutions works together to transform the way we work, live, and play.

I recently caught up with Jim Brisimitzis, founder and general partner of the 5G Open Innovation Lab. We talked about the organization and projects designed to take 5G and edge computing “beyond the hype.”

What was the catalyst for creating the lab?

When 5G emerged on the scene, there wasn’t a developer community that the telecommunications carriers could tap into. Nor was there a clear journey for how developers could build on top of carriers’ existing platforms. Furthermore, the industry lacked a broader ecosystem to encourage collaboration between carriers and leading technology companies.

Carriers, enterprises, developers, government institutions—they all were siloed from one another and confined to their own myopic view of the world. That’s not a great formula for innovation.

We saw these gaps and created this community to:

  1. Nurture a developer community for the telecommunications industry.
  2. Surround developers at startups with a vibrant ecosystem that provides them access to open platforms, enterprises, and markets needed to create, test, and deploy new use cases and innovations for 5G.

Once a pathway is cleared for developers, we will see an emergence of new applications and use cases to take 5G and edge computing beyond the hype and into reality.

The lab is focused on building an ecosystem around startups. Why focus on that?

The cloud economy was driven by startups. Netflix. Facebook. Snapchat. As they grew and built out their infrastructure, they did not want to rack and stack their own gear and run their own IT shops. It was much easier to build in the cloud from the start.

We will see a similar scenario play out in the enterprise world as it relates to edge computing and the role 5G communications will play in it. Startups will be the forerunners for leveraging 5G networks to achieve digital transformation in the enterprise and advance applications in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, edge computing, and IoT.

We are taking aggressive action to surround select startups with a strong ecosystem of partners to help them reach the potential we believe they are capable of. Twice a year, we select 15 to 20 early- to late-stage companies that are developing new 5G-enabled products and services that have the potential to change the world.

These startups are taken through an incubator program to accelerate proofs-of-concept (POC), product testing, and deployment. Once a viable product is developed, we provide the startups with access to field labs that enable them to test, validate, and showcase their solution in a real-world environment. Our first field labs are focused on applications for the transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture industries.

Tell me about the first field lab recently established in Snohomish County?

In December 2020, we launched the first field lab for the agricultural industry. We are starting with two sites:

  1. Swans Trail Farms, a retail farm and event venue
  2. Albert’s Hay, Inc., a commercial grower and supplier

Each site is equipped with a 5G-capable, CBRS LTE-based platform powered by partner technology, including VMware. IoT applications include soil sensors measuring temperature, volumetric water content, oxygen levels, and photosynthetic radiation. Another app enables supply chain and logistics tracking to ensure safety and security. Finally, big data collection and analysis provide actionable insights to the farmers.

This is a classic win-win-win. The startups can experiment and apply their innovation to a real-world challenge. The technology partners can observe results to help evolve their platforms. The farmers gain access to leading-edge technology and real-time data to transform their business. Everyone wins together. The ecosystem gets stronger together.

Are we now beyond the hype stage of 5G? What use cases are primed to breakthrough?

We look at 5G not just as a communications platform, but as a means to drive innovation out at the edge. There is a lot of interest among enterprises and developers alike around discovering what’s possible with a better connected, 5G-enabled edge network.

With these field labs, we want to get our hands dirty to validate use cases and the commercial viability of 5G-enabled technology and services. Some of the greatest opportunities at play—both near-term and further out on the horizon—include:

  1. Digital transformation: Enterprises have embarked on their digital transformation journeys, and the pandemic accelerated investment in this area. When it comes to digital transformation, edge and connectivity are must-haves.
  2. Private cellular networks: Demand is building for private enterprise cellular networks. As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) facilitates spectrum license auctions, we are seeing more enterprises looking to stand up their own private 5G networks. This is particularly true for industries that tend to operate in remote locations where public connectivity access is limited.
  3. Automation at scale: I think of this as an offshoot of digital transformation. Future manufacturing, supply chain, transportation, mining, and building management systems are being automated powered by 5G private networks, robotics, and intelligent edge computing.
  4. Immersive experiences: When augmented and virtual reality were first introduced, there was a lot of excitement. However, legacy networks were a bottleneck to mainstream adoption. With edge computing and private 5G networks, we are seeing these experiences taking hold again, particularly in industrial sectors looking to enable remote or field assist technology.
  5. Non-negotiable security: Billions of new connected devices are creating billions of new threat vectors. Network complexity, edge applications, and the thirst for real-time data will force significantly new security measures.
  6. The unknown: This is the area that excites me most. The innovator’s dilemma will give rise to disruptive market forces.

The Innovation Continuum

This is how progress is made. By identifying the innovators and surrounding them with the mentors and resources they need to help their ideas take flight. Go it alone, and a promising innovation may flounder. Go it together and go far.

At least that’s Jim Brisimitzis’ view of the world. As someone genuinely excited to see how 5G and edge computing will transform our lives, I’m rooting for him and the 5G Open Innovation Lab.