Why robots and drones are key technologies in the future of agriculture


Agriculture is no stranger to scientific innovation as shown by the emergence of 24-hour farming, autonomous tractors and driverless combines among others. The stereotype of a farmer planting his seeds, praying for good weather and waiting for the crop to grow, in fact, has never accurately reflected farm technology—either today or a hundred years ago.

Farmers are the ultimate “innovative tinkerers,” said Heidi Johnson, crops and soil agent for Dane County, Wisconsin. Faced by technical issues with their farm equipment, farmers have always had to cope on their own. Old MacDonald never had an IT department. Brian Luck, assistant professor at the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, calls farmers an “innovative bunch.” He said, “They’re not just self-sufficient. They are also good at taking the first stab at developing something that’s close to what they need.”

Indeed, many new technologies you see emerging in agriculture today come from farmers’ ideas, he added.

At the Farm Tech Days Show, it wasn’t just huge combines and choppers that got attendees’ attention. Show-goers examined and discussed advanced technologies that range from improved sensors to cloud processing for yield optimisation and robotics to improve manual tasks.

Drones, robotics, molecular science, cloud services and the data analytics behind climate change are already part of farmers’ everyday lingo.

Asked about the next big thing in farming, Luck said “managing farms not in one big unit, but in multiple small units.” With advancements in GPS and mapping, the goal is to manage farms by an individual area, “tailoring the amount of water and fertilizer per square foot or even down to per plant,” Luck added.

Such precision farming demands technologies that enable farmers to observe, measure and respond to what’s happening on each field, in real time. “Data is the crux of the issue,” Luck said.

Larry Fiene, business manager at Winfield Solutions, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, told EE Times, “We want to know when plants are suffering, and what they are suffering from” as things start to happen.

Asked for an agricultural high-tech wish list, Fiene said that farmers want sensors that tell them nutrient levels in soil at a more granular level—for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, etc. They also want to know “the flow rate of such nutrients into plants,” he said. Farmers want “real-time data” and “sensors and diagnostic tools that make that possible.”

Late last year, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) director Sonny Ramaswamy first talked about “Internet of Ag Things.” An “Internet of Ag Things,” however, isn’t totally a new concept. Farmers are already practicing it. They collect data both from the air and the ground—by “flying drones, placing crop sensors in machines for fertilizers and sprayers, and shoving moisture sensors into grounds,” said Luck.

Lacking, though, are adequate, cost-effective broadband connections, according to Luck. Even in a remote area, farmers have Internet connections—via satellite, for example. But its availability and connection cost are not exactly friendly to farmers who need to deal with an ever-increasing data flow, Luck said.

Today, after collecting data from their fields, farmers bring it home in an SD card or thumb drive, plug into a home computer, and transfer it to services where crop consultants or co-op experts do the analysis. The turnaround on this whole process takes a few days.

But what if end-node farm equipment—with sufficient computing power—could process and “edit” the raw data, sending only the necessary data straight to a cloud service? This automated process would be a real-time operation. “We’re not there yet, but we are heading into that direction,” said Luck.

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