- Japan’s agriculture industry is being affected by an aging population and shrinking workforce.
- In remote locations, 5G-powered tech is helping farmers produce crops with the support of experts.
- Private 5G is better for agriculture because it can cover rural areas more reliably.
- This article is part of “5G Playbook,” a series exploring one of our time’s most important tech innovations.
Japan’s aging workforce and declining population are having significant effects on the country’s agriculture industry. The 2020 Census of Agriculture and Forestry found that between 2015 and 2020, the number of agriculture workers in Japan dropped by over 20%. Of the remaining farm workers, almost 70% were 65 or older.
In an effort to revitalize the industry, private companies and local governments are partnering to develop technologies that can take some of the pressure off aging farmers and a shrinking workforce, and technology for 5G mobile internet is playing an important role.
5G-powered technology is helping farmers monitor crops
Japanese farmers are essential for producing major exports such as rice, barley, and wheat, all of which are also in demand domestically. Smart-farming technologies can help make farming easier and more efficient as the workforce changes, said Abe Masakuza, the head of management strategy and implementation at NTT AgriTechnology, the agricultural-production division of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.
“This approach is environmentally friendly, eliminates travel time, and allows experts to support more farmers in a limited amount of time, contributing to the reduction of labor shortages in agriculture and the realization of profitable farming,” Masakuza said in an email to Insider.
Smart farming was introduced into Japanese agriculture in 2020 by NTT AgriTechnology in Chōfu City, Tokyo, for a three-year project. Experts from the local government’s agricultural-research center in Tachikawa, Tokyo, about an hour’s drive away, provided support to the farmers in Chōfu City via 5G-powered technology, enabling farming without on-the-ground assistance. The experts helped the farmers grow crops with fully remote instruction.
That same year, the first 5G-powered electric robotractors hit the ground in Iwamizawa, a city in Northern Japan. The machinery was created through partnerships between Hokkaido University, NTT, and local governments, and demonstrated that 5G was capable of reliably transmitting large amounts of information from the tractors to data-monitoring sites.
Robotractors and 5G-connected robots allowed farmers to remotely monitor crops in multiple fields from a single location and receive assistance from experts in agricultural research. Robots powered by 5G also helped farmers remotely spray pesticides, cut grass, and perform other physically demanding tasks that would otherwise be strenuous on the aging workforce.
Crucially, 5G allows farmers to transmit 4K footage in real time because of its significant bandwidth, Masakuza said, a feat that would be challenging if done exclusively on WiFi networks. This helps farmers monitor crops for disease and create a harvesting timeline while navigating conditions that can change daily. Even more importantly, the low latency integral to 5G technologies ensures that experts can operate robots safely.
“The ability to quickly stop and control the robot remotely is crucial from a safety standpoint,” Masakuza said. “And private 5G makes actual robot operation possible.”
Farmers benefit from this system, Masakuza said, because it allows them to receive support from experts daily, rather than the weekly or even monthly assistance they had previously.
“They no longer have to check on their crops every day,” Masakuza said. “Images and data can be easily collected and analyzed.”
In several case-study scenarios, 5G technology has been deployed. In Chōfu City, NTT built fully automated greenhouses where farmers used 5G-powered technology such as smart glasses to control variables including temperature and humidity. In the case study, the greenhouses reduced the burden on farmers and protected crops from extreme weather.
Additionally, 5G allowed Chōfu City workers without an agriculture background to receive remote instruction from experts, then successfully grow tomatoes and funnel the crops back into the local food supply. Ready 5G access means instruction can occur in high resolution and in real time. Tomato plants benefit from these innovations because in the Japanese climate, which is generally hot and humid, they require constant monitoring to grow.
Private 5G networks are proving more reliable for innovation
Japan’s 5G network already covers about 55.5% of the population, with the goal being 95% coverage by the end of 2023. Most of this coverage comes from mobile-phone providers that offer public networks. Smart-farm producers, however, are hoping to increase the development of private, local networks that bring coverage to rural farming regions.
Private 5G networks are better for agriculture because they’re more customizable to meet the needs of local conditions and can cover rural areas more reliably, Shahid Ahmed, the executive vice president of new ventures and innovation at NTT, said.
“These tractors have become really advanced, and they have to be connected all the time,” Ahmed said. “As we move toward real-time analysis and machine learning, you need to get to real-time data.”
Ahmed added that consistent, robust connectivity was key for farming and other industries involving repetitive tasks. A lag in connectivity can be troublesome if a robot is working off outdated information.
“If you want to adjust the fertilizer composition inside your tractor, you can’t wait a couple seconds even,” Ahmed said. “Within a second, you should adapt because as you’re moving through the soil, there are different profiles. You want to adjust right away.”
5G is the right tool for the job because of its larger bandwidth and lower latency than previous generations of mobile internet, Ahmed said.
The next steps for 5G farming involve broadening the scale of these projects so that farmers can monitor more fields at a time, Ahmed and Masakuza said. To do that, companies and local governments will need to continue investing in private, local 5G networks, they added. Introducing pesticide drones and harvesting technologies may also reduce the demand for farmers and the burden on those working. They hope that, soon, AI will be able to provide recommendations based on the collected data.
“You can’t really take advantage of those advanced software systems like machine learning and AI if you don’t have real-time data that’s coming in and being collected,” Ahmed said of using 5G. “You need a robust network.”