Farming has always been more technologically advanced than its folksy reputation might have you believe. Agriculture depends on efficiency and yield, which means that farmers must understand weather cycles, soil chemistry, plant genetics and biology, and maintain the right machines and staffing levels to survive with their industry’s often razor-thin profit margins.
The revolutionary consumer tech developments of the past decade, however, have definitely not passed agriculture by. The agricultural tech (known as “AgTech”) industry is booming, with startup-focused tech site TechCrunch calling AgTech “The New Queen of Green.” Some of Silicon Valley’s most ambitious projects can be found in the formerly dull category of agriculture.
Several categories of AgTech innovations have emerged in the past few years, one of the most common being the drone. Unmanned and sometimes automated copters have been favorites in both the consumer and military arenas, but drones are particularly suited to solve many of the problems farmers face. “Drones and robots have increased yields while simultaneously making efficient use of resources, driving up profits for farmers and driving down prices for consumers,” says Vishnu Kadamatt, the founder of drone enthusiast site DroneyBee.
Drones outfitted with cameras and sensors can rapidly survey huge tracts of farmland much more efficiently than any human can. The kind of data they gather can be used for all kinds of things: footage from a drone can tell farmers when their crops are ripe, or provide security. Many farmers use them as a form of surveillance. In the past, if you needed to check on your cows, or see the water level in your irrigation systems, it took time and staff. A drone can do the job in minutes for basically no cost beyond the initial investment.
Cameras and sensors
Drones aren’t the only carriers of video tech farmers are using, though. “Drones are fun, efficient and provide new ways to monitor crops and conditions around the farm, but in the fresh produce packing house, it’s video that can sort better and faster than the human eye, can detect defects and sort by color, size and shape,” says Richard W. VanVranken, a professor of agriculture at Rutgers University. There are new gadgets that use a combination of video and ultraviolet sensors to detect even hard-to-see details like the ripeness of fruit after it’s been picked. There are also startups that use ethylene detectors to “smell” how close produce is to spoiling, in the hopes of reducing food waste.
When it comes to analyzing the data that comes in from those sensors, there are startups like Agrilyst, which provide data analytics to indoor growers and recently made news with a $1 million investment round.
Robots are common in agriculture as well, depending on what your definition of “robot” is. Certainly there are plenty of automated systems to plant, harvest and perform every task in between, but some robotics firms are working on even smarter and more interesting projects. The RIPPA robot, for example, visually distinguishes between weeds and valuable crops, and can actually pick the weeds for you. Soon, robots may be doing even more of that work: the world’s first all-robot farm is due to open in Japan in 2017.
With all these innovations and the ones those to come, the farm of the future could be classified as a tech company.