Post Hero Image: vertical planters

In 2050, there will be 9 billion people living on Earth. That’s almost 2 billion more than today — a 22% jump in just 33 years. To deal with this population boom, cities are increasing housing and creating faster and more efficient transportation systems that can better accommodate an influx of people. However, there is still one critical issue concerning scientists and population experts: how will we feed everyone? In order to feed 9 billion people, we will need to produce almost twice as much food as we produce today. And farmland doesn’t grow on trees.

Fortunately, digital technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) may provide the solution: vertical farming, also known as urban agriculture.

Picture this — rows and rows of small green plants stacked on top of each other, forming an indoor garden as high as a skyscraper. Plants are “fed” by LED lights, nutrient filled cloth, and irrigation misting systems instead of by sunshine, soil, and rain. And by using IoT sensors to gather hundreds of thousands of data points on the plants as they grow, plant scientists can determine and create the ideal growing environment, cutting the time from seed to harvest in half.

Sound too good to be true? In 2015, a company called Aerofarms leased a 70,000-square foot former steel factory in Newark, New Jersey and turned it into a vertical farm growing kale, arugula, and watercress. Now it grows 130 times more produce than an American farm the same size.

Through IoT sensors, plant scientists at Aerofarms collect 130,000 data points on their plants each harvest. These data points tell scientists the exact moisture level of the nutrient cloths and the exact temperature and oxygen level around the plants at any given time. The sensors relay the data to a central system, which then takes automated actions — such as lowering temperature or decreasing mist distribution. This precise data means that Aerofarms uses 95% less water than field farming while doubling the number of harvests each crop typically completes each year.

IoT solutions don’t only help vertical farms. IoT sensors in traditional farms improve productivity by mapping out the best soil locations for growing certain crops and enabling automated precision watering systems. Self-driving tractors mean that farmers can get other work done instead of driving a tractor to plant seeds, harvest crops, or apply fertilizer. Ag-tech startup, OnFarm creates central data systems for farms that use IoT sensors to track productivity. In a recent study, OnFarm found that an average farm that used IoT technology saw yield rise by 1.75%, water used for irrigation fall by 8%, and energy costs drop from $20 to $13 per acre. Seward and Son, a 30,000-acre cotton, soy bean, corn, and rice farm in Mississippi that uses OnFarm technologies to optimize their own production is a testament to the efficiencies that farms can realize through the use of IoT technology.

While all of these exciting advancements in smart agriculture and food production have been developed on 4G LTE networks and under current regulations, scaling up our capabilities to produce food for 9 billion people puts a much bigger impetus on smart ag applications. Next generation broadband network technologies, including 5G, will provide the greater reliability and ability to handle the massive amounts of data that producing food for the world in 2050 will need. We need to launch 5G to efficiently handle the millions (even billions) of data points gathered and processed by IoT sensors in the connected farms of the future.

To deploy 5G across America, wireless broadband providers must build a network of small cell antennas throughout communitiesThat effort, however, has been hampered by out-of-date permitting and approval processes at the local level, which apply the same regulatory processes for each small antenna that they do for large cell towers. While localities understandably have an important role to play in determining where and what network infrastructure is placed in their communities, overly burdensome regulations on infrastructure that doesn’t pose the same aesthetic or space concerns only serves to delay better wireless connectivity to their residents.

As American innovators create solutions to real-world problems, such as growing enough food for everyone to eat, our policymakers need to ensure they’re supported by a system of regulations that make sense for the 21st century. With the right technology and regulations in place, solving how to feed the Earth’s rising population will be just one of many exciting innovations in our digital future.