The roots of farming date back 12,000 years ago, when ancient humans traded their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles for permanent settlements. But agricultural technology, or agritech, has only come onto the scene within the last few centuries. Mechanized plows and harvesters, synthetic fertilizer, genetic breeding and refrigeration have all improved yield, crop resilience and accessibility to food. It hasn’t stopped there, though. New technology, including robotics, satellites and the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) promise to improve efficiency and sustainability and revolutionize farming around the world.
Down on the Automated Farm
By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To feed them, the World Resources Institute notes that farmers will need to produce 56 percent more food. But since 1950, the number of farmers and farm workers has plummeted in all industrial nations — by as much as 80 percent in some regions, reports the Worldwatch Institute. Automating some of the processes could help reduce the demand for workers and improve efficiencies.
That’s where robots come in. Several agritech companies are developing bots that can handle repetitive, labor-intensive tasks, leaving the business end of farming to the farmer. For instance, the VR Lettuce Thinner from San Diego–based Vision Robotics uses computer vision to identify seedlings that may be growing too closely together, which can reduce yields. A precision sprayer directs weed killer to eliminate the unwanted lettuce seedlings. The company’s website says that the machine covers 2 to 3 acres per hour — much faster than manually thinning — at an operating cost of $30 per acre. It can be modified to accommodate other crops, as well.
Another company, Blue River, also uses computer vision, artificial intelligence and automated nozzles in their See & Spray robot. The machine distinguishes weeds from cotton crops and applies just enough herbicide to kill the nuisance plants. Such precision can reduce the use of these chemicals by up to 90 percent, the company claims. It could also make it possible for farmers to use more potent herbicides that shouldn’t be widely sprayed using conventional methods. In 2017, Inc. named Blue River among the 25 Most Disruptive Companies of the Year. That same year, John Deere acquired Blue River for $305 million.
‘Til the Drones Come Home
New developments in drone and satellite technology are giving farmers a bird’s eye view of their operation. For example, the satellite company, Planet, has 200 satellites circling Earth that daily stream images with 3 to 5 meters of resolution. Algorithms designed to analyze the images can compare one day’s image to the next, revealing variations in vegetation and crop health. The data can help farmers optimize irrigation, determine optimum fertilizer distribution and tell whether crops have been struck by pests or disease. In 2018, DowDuPont’s farm software business, Granular, struck a deal with Planet and is now using agricultural analytics tools to parse daily images of the globe for farmers, reports Wired. Other satellite companies, including Geosys, Planet Labs, Earthi and Astro Digital, are also working to provide farmers with image data that can help them better manage their farms.
While satellites can give farmers a macro view of their acreage, drones can provide a high-resolution micro view. Companies such as SenseFly and AeroVironment have drones designed to fly directly into suspicious areas to get up-close views. High-resolution multi-spectral imagers coupled with machine learning can reveal a plant’s health and analyze soil conditions. This information can help farmers customize sowing and manage the application of fertilizer and water, reports MarketWatch. Additionally, at least three companies are developing drones that can spray herbicides and pesticides, writes Precision Ag.
Going IoT Wild
Around the world, IoT devices are becoming ubiquitous. They include wireless gadgets, such as sensors or cameras, that communicate with each other and the internet. The devices are common in businesses and homes, but now they’re also being used in farming as a way to monitor water supply, crops, livestock, bees and, perhaps one day, fish — all in real-time. According to AgriBusiness Global, IoT-enabled technologies could help farmers conserve as much as 90 percent of irrigation water, reduce chemical use by 30 to 50 percent, improve food quality and reduce food waste in the supply chain.
In May 2019, the wireless company Nokia partnered with Brazil-based ConectarAGRO to put 500,000 farms online and enable them to use internet-connected robots, temperature and moisture sensors, drones and more, reports Successful Farming. These devices can also help monitor livestock: For the first time in the history of agriculture, farmers can have connected cows, sheep, chickens and more. Cowlar and SCR by Allflex both offer sensors that monitor individual dairy cows, tracking their health, nutrition and milk output.
As agricultural technology comes online, access to rural broadband will be critical, as half the world lacks high-speed internet, according to the United Nations. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission reports that roughly 39 percent of people living in rural regions have no broadband. Robots, satellite, drones and IoT devices cannot reach their full potential without it. Fortunately, telecommunication companies have begun to build out their networks, and satellite companies are crafting plans to beam internet from space. In no time, the next tech-enabled green revolution will bring forth a bountiful harvest.