Robots, drones and sensors are changing the way we farm

By: Suzanne Guillette

This tech brings agriculture into the 21st century

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Last spring, farmer Brian Tischler was sitting in his tractor when he had an idea. What if his tractor was fully autonomous? Thanks to AgOpenGPS – a software he developed that tracks where crops are seeded – he’s had more time to think of new ideas to improve his workflow.

Tischler began creating on the spot, envisioning features for the autonomous tractor like remote control via smartphone, the ability to sense obstacles, and geolocation to ensure the tractor stays within a field.

Across the farming industry, tech innovations like Tischler’s are revolutionizing the way agriculture is done. These applications come at a critical time. The world population is expected to swell to 9.8 billion by 2050. Climate change and infectious disease are looming threats to livestock production and crop yield.

Tischler made the tractor program open source, sharing it online so farmers from across the globe can download and develop additions. Tischler, who recently won the 2018 ASTech Award for Outstanding Achievement in Agricultural Innovation, views the software as a way of giving back to the farming community. A lot of leading-edge technology is not affordable for smaller operations.

“What inspires me is connecting with other people who share how they’re using [the software],” says Tischler.

Such innovations have made the $3 trillion industry more efficient, resourceful, and productive. In recent years, there have been varied applications of agriculture technology: crop-watering drones, software that uses satellites to manage nut and citrus orchards, virtual trials of new farming techniques, genomics testing that can ward off food contamination, and more.

Recent innovations have made the $3 trillion farming industry more efficient, resourceful and productive.

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The DJI “Agricultural Wonder Drone” makes it possible for a single farmer to feed or spray pesticide on as much as 80 acres of crops a day. By comparison, a worker on foot may cover less than one acre in the same amount of time. Using the DJI drone, the farmer maps out the field by walking through it and the unit’s controller creates a flight path, almost like a flying Roomba.

In Canada, the R2B2 team of scientists are researching rural connectivity and precision agriculture. Their studies utilize digital devices, applications, and databases of geospatial techniques to analyze and respond to variability in the field.

R2B2 looks at how wireless optimization and tools like sensors and drones support sustainable farming practices. For example, by using sensors to measure moisture and nutrients in the soil, farmers avoid loading up fields with excess irrigation and pesticides, saving money and protecting the environment.

Using linked technologies, a connected farm can also employ solar wireless devices like Ecorobotix, a solar-powered weeding robot. Dr. Helen Hambly, R2B2’s lead scientist explains, “In the next generation of farming, there is a lot of monitoring done through connected and wireless devices. Wireless has changed things substantially.”

These innovations come at a critical time, as the world population is expected to swell and climate change and infectious disease are looming threats to livestock production and crop yield.

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Many farmers have adopted precision agriculture practices. Christian Gastón Palmaz, CEO of Napa’s Palmaz Vineyards, created VIGOR (Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition), smart software that marries infrared imagery with soil moisture measurements. The algorithmic approach ensures that the vines grow at the same rate and that the exact amount of water needed is used–reducing water use by an estimated 20 percent.

Palmaz says, “Big data analytics has had a profound impact on understanding and addressing slight amounts of difference, which would otherwise propagate over time.”

Technology can also help manage livestock wellness and reproduction. Remote Insights developed ear tags that monitor sows’ behavior, movements, eating and drinking. The data is collected and analyzed to check that the animal has a healthy appetite and normal mobility. Moocall created monitors to check when a female cow is in heat and a pregnant one is ready to give birth. Such forward-thinking equipment can save a farmer numerous trips to the field or barn to review the herd.

There’s palpable excitement within the field about the myriad of technological possibilities, strengthening old farming traditions, by using technology to answer existing needs. As Hambly says, “This is the farming of the future.”

For more information, please check the following resources:

AgOpenGPS

MooCall Sensors

VIGOR

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About the author(s): 

Suzanne Guillette has previously written about technology for Verizon and her work has appeared in O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.