Looking to the future of agriculture

Texas A&M grad students help Viasat explore potential business in ag-tech

Albritton Bell Tower in Twilight

Albritton Bell Tower(Texas A&M U) in Twilight

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Agriculture is the type of industry that’s potentially a great match for satellite connectivity.

Like all modern-day businesspeople, farmers need the internet to maximize their operations. The farm operations and machinery of tomorrow will likely rely on sensors that can supply a constant stream of data, adding up to significant improvements in efficiency, safety, and profit.

Yet the very spaces in which farmers work make access to this needed connectivity challenging. Farmland and ranches are often vast and remote, far from the reach of land-based telecommunications infrastructure like cable or fiber. Without a strong connection, it can put the benefits of big data even further out of reach for small and larger agricultural operations.

Satellite can help bridge those gaps, and Viasat is taking its first steps to prepare for its potential future role in doing so.

“Ag-tech is really ideal for satellite,” said Brendan Sullivan, Viasat’s senior vice president of Intelligent Edge Solutions. “It’s very much an emerging market with good opportunities.”

Grad students research possibilities

In one approach to get a jump start on the information Viasat needs to enter the field, it recently paired up with grad students from Texas A&M. Over four months in 2021, the students analyzed three segments of the agri-tech market in North and South America, then recommended those that could most benefit from Viasat’s technology. They presented their findings to Viasat in December 2021.

Texas A&M marketing student Asha Fuller, who worked on the project with four other grad students, believes Viasat’s greatest potential impact could be in the area of monitoring and analysis, as well as the agriculture animal segments.

The team divided the agri-tech market into three segments: advanced farm machinery, field monitoring and analysis, and animal agriculture. Large companies like John Deere are already leading the way in high-tech farm equipment, and Fuller said there may be opportunities for Viasat to partner with such companies in the future.

“We felt the field monitoring and analysis segment — monitoring the health of plants, fertilizer, pesticides, moisture content — is definitely prime for development,” Fuller said.

“The agriculture animal segment also seemed an up-and-coming segment Viasat should consider entering. We found quite a bit of potential there.”

That technology allows farmers to monitor cattle and other livestock around the clock, analyzing their health and other factors that can prevent disease and optimize profits. Sensors can monitor everything from the quality of milk to pregnancy hormones. A company called Moocall has even developed a tail-mounted sensor that monitors a pregnant cow and its contractions, sending a precisely timed text alert so a farmer can be with the animal when it calves.

Fuller said many consumers also want more information on the meat they consume, offering further business potential.

“We found a lot of people are interested in stories behind the animals, from birth to when it was packaged and sold,” she said. “They want to be knowledgeable about their food. Was the animal grass-fed or grain-fed?”

Such concerns are not just for ethical reasons, but may be tied to personal health concerns.

Fuller said the grad students had help from Texas A&M professors, as well as industry experts and data bases.

“The amount of research we needed to do seemed daunting at first, but it was super interesting, and getting into it was a lot of fun,” she said.

Ag-tech opportunities abound

Sullivan sat in on the student’s presentation and said their research confirmed much of his own.

“We are constantly reassessing this market, and who better to tell us about ag-tech than Texas A&M?” he said. “It’s a fascinating emerging market that we will continue to explore. Innovations and technology will get us to the right economic tipping point to get in the game, and then this market will explode.”

Adrian Haskamp, Viasat’s director of market strategy and intelligence, said the students saved Viasat hours of time researching while gaining real-world experience.

“It gave us a better understanding of the competitive landscape, the customers and what their challenges and needs are,” he said. “This is a new market for us that has opportunity, and we have unique capabilities that really match up well with these markets. The next thing will be to make some decisions on how to go to market, who to partner with, which customer base are we going to target, and how to grow this over time.”