In a deployment that is part of what is being dubbed the Great Rural Revival, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) has announced it is conducting a test and trial connecting a 126-acre estate to create the connected farm of the future, with the aim of demonstrating the transformative power of connectivity in the agriculture sector.
It is bringing connectivity across Cannon Hall Farm in Barnsley’s 126-acre estate, including historic blackspots and not-spots, to explore how a network of sensors and monitors can work together to transform the farm, saving time and money. The trial is intended to help create a blueprint for the future of farming that could help unlock an additional £2.5bn for the UK economy and create 30,390 additional rural jobs, according to economic modelling by Cebr.
Putting the trial into context, VMO2 noted that agriculture has faced some of the toughest challenges over the past few years, from extreme weather changes to labour shortages compounded by Brexit and the pandemic. In Defra’s latest Farmer Opinion Tracker, over half (52%) of farmers on holdings do not feel positive about their own future in farming, up from 41% in 2022.
Virgin Media O2, Cannon Hall Farm and Jules Hudson, presenter of UK TV programme Springtime on the Farm, have designed the Connected Farm of the Future trial to help the industry combat these challenges, looking at three specific areas: protecting valuable assets, optimising yields and enhancing safety.
Equipment and livestock theft cost the rural agriculture industry a combined £49.5m in 2022 alone. Compounding the issue are gates being left open on public footpaths that run around and through many farms, leading to livestock escaping fields and being lost or injured.
Trackers, sensors and switches will be installed across Cannon Hall Farm’s equipment, livestock and gates as part of the trial to enable the farmers to monitor in real time the location of these high-value items or receive alerts about gates left open. Farmers can be alerted instantly if equipment moves unexpectedly or leaves the farm, helping minimise the risk of loss and freeing up time previously spent doing manual checks.
With farmers often working alone across big areas and remote locations with little to no signal, access to connectivity can be a game changer, and in the most extreme instances be the difference between life and death. According to data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), agriculture has the highest workplace injury rate of 4,100 per 100,000 workers, 3.5 times higher than the all-industry average. The trial aims to improve safety by removing not-spots, providing reliable mobile signal across the farm and giving workers the ability to get help should they need it.
To combat the impact of increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather events such as floods and droughts on crop viability and yield, part of the trial sees the installation of connected soil moisture, atmospheric temperature and humidity sensors. These sensors show the potential to monitor the health of crops and assess irrigation needs, reduce water use, improve crop quality and allow for targeted interventions based on real-time conditions.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with Virgin Media O2 to trial the Connected Farm of the Future,” said Cannon Hall Farm owner Rob Nicholson. “Rural connectivity opens the door to a range of new technologies than could completely change farming as we know it. Being able to monitor in real-time soil and atmospheric conditions, provide remote support and have round-the-clock monitoring of livestock, machinery and equipment is a total game-changer.
“The potential for this technology to help create a more efficient, profitable and sustainable future for not only our family farm but many other farms across the UK is huge.”
“This trial is an example of the transformational power of connectivity and how it’s being used to power a Great Rural Revival,” added Virgin Media O2, chief technology officer Jeanie York.
“Through this innovative trial with Cannon Hall Farm, we have demonstrated how a network of sensors, underpinned by excellent connectivity, can make a real impact and transform the way we live and work in rural areas. We will continue to work with industry partners, the UK Government, planning authorities and landowners to deliver the network upgrades to provide faster and more reliable coverage that is essential for rural communities to thrive both now and in the future.”