Two Way Radio vs Mobile Phones
Managing any kind of farming operation brings with it unique organisational challenges. Whether you are raising livestock or involved in agriculture, there is always one significant obstacle to effective communication and coordination of activities - space.
In terms of sheer physical size, farms put most other types of business in the shade. But when you are trying to run an operation spread out over many hectares, the majority of it outdoors, keeping everyone in touch can become tricky. Without good communication systems in place, time gets wasted ferrying messages back and forward, it is difficult to ensure everyone is reading from the same page, and with efficiency productivity falls too.
Traditionally, like many sectors of industry, farmers have used two way radio as a go to wireless communication tool. But over the past couple of decades, a new technology has appeared on the scene threatening the hegemony of handheld radio - mobile phones.
One of the big advantages of mobile phones is that everyone nowadays has one, so why spend money on a different device when all of the people you employ on your farm probably have a mobile in their pocket anyway? However, convenience does not necessarily mean mobile phones are best suited to the rugged demands of farm work.
The demise of analogue two way radio
Another reason why mobile phones have become popular amongst farm operators is that they seemed to improve on many of the drawbacks of old-fashioned analogue two way radio.
Unlike mobile phones, two way radios operate on a local network which has a limited coverage range. On larger agricultural and farming estates, the network range offered by a fleet of analogue handheld radios was not always adequate to cover the whole area. Mobile phones, with their national and indeed international networks of broadcast masts, pose no such problems - as long as you can get a signal in the first place.
Analogue two way radio has other shortcomings as well. Most analogue handsets cannot transmit and receive simultaneously, meaning you have to use a ‘Push to Talk’ button every time you want to speak and take turns. They also tend to only support full network broadcasts, meaning that every time you speak, you are talking to every user on the network. Finally, analogue two way radio only supports voice communication, whereas mobile phones, as everyone knows, can be used to send text messages, IM or even browse the internet.
However, as mobile phones began to evolve into the smartphone age, two way radio underwent a transformation of its own - the arrival of digital. Transmitting digital signals rather than analogue has revolutionised the performance of handheld radios. Digital models boast better output power, so the effective broadcast range is bigger. They can support full duplex transmission (i.e., you can send and receive at the same time, enabling more ‘natural’ conversations), and they give the option of making private as well as group calls.
Possibly the most significant change digital technology introduced was the ability to run software on the handsets. Suddenly, a two way radio could do a lot more than just transmit voice, and the range of additional features could rival a mobile phone.
So, given the great digital comeback, which offers the better choice for farmers - a digital two way radio or a mobile phone? Let’s look at how they shape up in four key areas.
Anyone who has ever dropped a touchscreen smartphone knows they are not really built with rugged use in mind. Even with a protective case, are they really up to scratch to withstand the rain, the mud, the dust, the rough and tumble of farm work?
By contrast, digital two way radios are built for industrial use, and are designed to withstand even the toughest conditions. The Hytera PD range, for example, including the PD405, is built to US military standard 810, which covers resistance to shock, vibration and temperature extremes. Similarly, the Vertex EVX-S24 is rated at the IP67 standard for dust and water resistance, meaning it can withstand being fully submerged in water for up to 30 minutes. No worries withstanding the cold and rain when working outdoors in the winter, then.
Mobile phones are superb general purpose communication tools - convenient, packed with features and different connectivity options, and near enough universal in terms of where you can use them and who you can contact. But for mission critical communications, when you absolutely have to get through, are they absolutely reliable?
We have all experienced call dropout and loss of signal with mobile phones, especially in more remote rural areas. With digital two way radio, as long as you are within network range, that is extremely unlikely to happen. The chances are further reduced with options to use a repeater unit to boost coverage over large areas, or a vehicle radio for roaming over large estates.
Digital two way radios also typically offer much better audio quality than mobile phones. Models like the Motorola DP1400 have built in intelligent audio features like noise cancellation and automatic gain control, so if you are making a call with heavy machinery in the background, the volume will be adjusted and background noise filtered out.
The ease of the one button Push to Talk function on two way radio has always been an advantage for farm and industrial use. When you are busy working with your hands, that is much more convenient than swiping a touchscreen or scrolling through contact lists to make a call.
Digital two way radio takes this emphasis on usability even further. Most models now include programmable buttons, so whatever the most common functions you use are, you can set them up for one touch activation. Many models, including the Motorola DP1400 and the Vertex VX261, also support Vox voice activation mode, allowing users to make calls hands free. Other models, such as the Motorola DP4800, support Bluetooth connections to wireless headphones and earpieces.
Finally, digital two way radios are designed with user safety in mind. Farm work carries risks, whether it is operating machinery, heavy loading or working with animals. It is not unusual for workers to operate alone and at distance from colleagues. Digital two way radios use their networking capabilities to provide a range of alarm and alert features intended to mitigate against these risks. These include one touch Emergency Button, Lone Worker monitoring systems and even Man Down sensors, which trigger alarms if a fall is detected.
Farming can pose other kinds of risks, too. In animal husbandry, hygiene is an important consideration. The Motorola XT460 comes with a special antimicrobial coating with just this sort of thing in mind. And when working around diesel operated farm machinery, or collecting biogas, electrical ignition from appliances becomes a risk. Again, digital two way radio manufacturers have anticipated this, with most producing special ranges of ATEX compliant handsets.
Brentwood Communications has more than 40 years’ experience supplying two way radio to all sectors of industry and business. It specialises in developing integrated solutions to meet the individual needs of clients, making use of available technology to build reliable, robust networks, whatever the size of the site and whatever the purpose.