Ready, Tech, Grow: Emerging Technology in Agriculture
Life on the farm isn’t what it used to be. Where there used to be farm hands and back-breaking labor, today there is automation, artificial intelligence, and agbots. Cory Hughes explains how today’s technology has created a new kind of farm and a new kind of farmer.
Technology has always been a major contributing factor in how our lives are led. It impacts how we communicate, how we travel, and even how we eat. Advancements in agricultural technology are changing how we grow our food and manage its production. The ultimate goal of technology in agriculture is to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. Emerging technologies not only impact farming on a small scale, but have a drastic effect on the large-scale system of food distribution as well. As new technology becomes integrated with modern farming, it results in improved production and easier supply chain management.
Automation is the true focus of technological advances in agriculture, and it is already employed on farms around the world. Automation has come a long way since the days of mechanical timers as modern automation requires very little assistance from humans. Systems are being created that can monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.
Crop, air, and soil sensors are expected to be the backbone of future automated farming. While sensors are currently able to determine basics like pH, the sensors of tomorrow will be able to do much more than that. Soil and crop sensors will not only be able to read nutrient levels and EC, they will be able to perform more detailed analysis using infrared, electromagnetic, and acoustic means. Having more data can save crop growers time and money by allowing them to break from strict feed schedules to take a more as-needed approach. Equipment sensors will also be used to relay information from smart technology to a central control unit to warn of potential machinery failures or malfunctions. Just about any metric that can be measured will have a sensor constantly communicating with a centrally controlled artificial intelligence system.
The use of artificial intelligence, or AI, will make automated systems more adaptable to shifting conditions. Not only that, AI agricultural systems will be able to analyze, diagnose, and prescribe proper treatment programs for crops at a level of efficiency unmatched by humans. Now, we’re not talking about The Terminator when we talk about AI. AI, for the time being, is simply a complex computer system that has the ability to adapt to new stimuli. AI systems in agriculture work to better coordinate mechanical systems, create feed schedules, diagnose illness, and ultimately increase yields and productivity. How do they do this? One of the more exciting technologies that will be coordinated by AI in agriculture is that of drones.
Drones are popping up everywhere and are now regulated by the FAA in the United States. They are cool and fun and seem to have way more practical uses than anyone could have imagined. Farmers can fly a surveillance drone over acres of crops and take real-time photos and video. They can also be fitted to monitor crop temperatures in the colder months. Currently, drones are being used on farms not only for surveillance, but application as well. Crop-spraying drones are one of the latest iterations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) found on today’s modern farm. Crop-spraying drones can apply pesticides or fertilizers and are unimpeded by rough terrain. Aerial drones aren’t the only ones having all the fun. Autonomous robots are also having an impact on modern farming.
The Rise of Agbots
Farms of tomorrow may no longer need people to grow crops at all. Today, drone-like autonomous robots are starting to be used to perform tasks like planting seeds, tending crops, and harvesting. A variety of drone farmhands are starting to hit the market. Micro-seed planters, drone tractors, and weed-eating robots are slowly creeping into the agricultural mainstream. The idea is to create a swarm of automated robots controlled by a central AI that removes the possibility of human error and adapts to conditions to maximize yields and drastically cut time and increase efficiency. Automated farming machines work much like driverless cars. They are coordinated by GPS technology that precisely controls their locations and functions. The use of GPS technology is part of a much larger trend in farming known as precision agriculture. Precision agriculture has a few different names, including satellite farming and site-specific crop management (SSCM). Precision agriculture takes the most precise readings in topographic data then combines it with sensor data on the ground to give a precise picture of crop needs. It is broken into four phases: data collection, analysis of variables, development of strategies, and implementation of practices. In the end, precision agriculture looks to maximize efficiency through precise data analysis using cutting-edge technology.
Automation, however, does not solve the problem of space. Along with modern technology, new systems of farming, such as vertical farming, are gaining in popularity as ways to maximize yields in a fraction of the space of traditional farms. As technology progresses, its contribution to securing our food supply has been undeniable. New technology allows us to better understand our land, the soil, and ultimately, our crops. It is with this better understanding that we can refine our methods and techniques that will ultimately lead to more efficient systems of production.