From Farm to Table in the Digital Age
Technological Innovation in the Fields
It’s no secret that technological innovations such as robotics, blue tooth and digital image recognition are revolutionizing manufacturing and even retail. It may come as a surprise, though, when you learn about the sweeping changes that technology is bringing to agriculture and farming. We’ve come a long way from the horse and plow, and even the tractor. New applications of technology are being applied to every aspect of farming, from the management of irrigation and fertilization to the determination of optimal harvest times to the control of weeds and pests. Here are some of the cutting edge developments that are transforming the way we produce much of our food.
Robots—The Space Age Field Hand
Farmers have been looking to automate their operations for more than as century, since the first Waterloo Boy tractor rolled off the line in 1918. With robots, farmers can automate those tasks that are often hardest to find human workers to perform, ones that tend to be dull and repetitive. There are now robots available to plant, weed, harvest, prune, spray, sort and pack a wide range of agricultural products:
- Xaver, a product of AGCO Fendt, uses robots to plant corn. Company officials say 12 of the units will do the work of an 8-row planter, but without the need for a human operator. Xaver uses a 48-volt battery that lasts about five hours and can be charged in half an hour.
- SPL, a German company, has developed an autonomous vehicle that has a built-in crop detection device, allowing it to distinguish between crops and weeds. It has a built-in GPS and can be programmed to weed a field without a human operator.
- Though the progress to develop robotic harvesters has been slower, primarily because of the manual dexterity necessary to harvest many fruits and vegetables without damaging them, there has been some successful research and development conducted through Clever Robots for Crops (CROPS), a European Union-funded project. CROPS has prototypes for robotic harvesting of apples, sweet peppers and grapes, among other crops.
Drones—Monitoring Your Fields the Easy Way
One of the big challenges in any farming operation is keeping an eye on all your fields—if you have to do it manually (i.e., in person), it can eat up a significant amount of your time. Drone technology offers a much more efficient way to identify when there are problems that need to be addressed—areas that may need to be replanted, weeds that may need to be eradicated. Drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) can also be used to plant seeds, apply fertilizer, pesticides and weed killers, track and estimate yields and determine soil health.
One of the most versatile and highly rated ag drones on the market, the eBee SQ, can cover up to 500 acres on a single charge. The eBee has the capacity to capture an extensive amount of data, including plant counts, soil water levels, soil temperature and topography. It’s also compact, weighing less than three pounds.
Smart Spraying—Using Software to Manage Pests, Eliminate Disease and Increase Yields
In any sizeable agricultural operation, spraying is essential to keep pest and disease under control. One of the challenges, though, is knowing when to spray—when the weather conditions will be optimal, when the soil will support the spraying equipment, and when temperature inversions could have an effect on spraying. With the right technology, you can know in advance when conditions will be good for protecting your crops. Pocket Spray Smart, an IOS-based app from Agrible, allows you to use your mobile phone, tablet or computer to get a forecast of conditions. The app will tell you wind speed and directions three days in advance, showing conditions hour by hour.
Satellite Imagery—Using Technology to Get the Big Picture
With satellite imagery, farmers can have access to real-time information that allows them to maximize yields. The technology is available to agricultural operations of all sizes, from mom and pop farms to multinational agribusinesses. The images obtained from satellites can be integrated with other data to help farmers and agribusinesses prepare models for weather, as well as pests. Earth-I, one of the most widely used satellite imaging platforms, offers high resolution digital pictures to farmers, allowing for:
- Effective monitoring of plant health
- The ability to implement site-specific crop yield management plans
- Tools for mapping land and classifying crops
- A way to proactively identify potential terrain issues
Driverless Tractors—The Horse and Plow of the Future?
Though most of the attention in the development of self-driving vehicles has focused on automobiles and passenger devices, there’s much research and development being devoted to driverless tractors. CNH Industrial, known in the agricultural industry for its Case IH tractor, displayed a prototype of an autonomous tractor a couple years ago. The machine is still in the development stages, but employs GPS and sensor technology to perform a number of tractor-driven tasks without a human operator. The self-driving vehicle is equipped, however, with technology that will allow a farmer or grower to remotely monitor and control the tractor. There’s still a cab on the tractor, so that a human operator could climb aboard and handle any tasks not well-suited for automation, such as driving to and from the field. Spokespersons say that AGCO and Deere, two of America’s top tractor manufacturers, are also working on similar technologies.
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