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FarmTech: Drones Above, Robots Below

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. — Twenty-four hour farming, autonomous tractors and driverless combines are no longer the stuff of agro-science fiction. Agriculture today is moving toward all these innovations.

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.

Statz Bros. Farm to host FarmTech Days

Statz Bros. Farm to host FarmTech Days

At the Farm Tech Days Show, which will open here this week (Aug. 25 — 27), it won’t be just huge combines and choppers that get attendees’ attention. Show-goers will examine and discuss advanced technologies that range from improved sensors to cloud processing for yield optimization 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.

‘Data is the crux of the issue’
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

Larry Fiene

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 “Intrernet 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.

Drivers behind high-tech farming
Today, farms are getting bigger and farmers have a lot more acreage to cover, said Johnson. They’re looking “in every direction to boost yields and deal with labor shortages in farms,” she explained.

Heidi Johnson

Heidi Johnson

Robots are moving heavily into farming. There are “Roombas” scurrying between corn furrows to inject cover-crop seeds in late summer, even before the corn is harvested.

A robotic milker is also emerging, although it’s still expensive. “Cows are actually happier with steady, consistent hands of a robot,” Johnson explained, than human hands whose squeeze may vary.

Auto-steer tractors with no operators are also coming. “Of course, there is always a concern, like, what if a 500-horsepower machine with no human driver loses control and runs into a farm house,” said Luck. But farmers are already trying a number of smaller autonomous machines, opening the door to 24-hour farming. By taking humans out of the equation, the harvest moon will shine all night on machines that don’t need to sleep.

Luck is convinced that “driverless tractors will come first,” before self-driving cars start appearing on streets.

Where technology meets agriculture
Farmers have always made decisions based on their own experience. Put this know-how together with farmers’ fundamentally innovative nature, and agriculture provides  a perfect playground for technology companies to pitch new tools, algorithms and analytics.

Silicon Valley’s interest in agriculture and food-related startups is at an all-time high. Conferences focused on agricultural technology are growing fast. Cleantech Corp.’s data shows investment in agriculture and food on a sharp upward trend. In 2014, global investment in this area reached $1.14 billion across 176 deals, the company said.

Fueling interest among entrepreneurs and corporations is also the challenge of feeding more than 9 billion people — according to United Nations estimates — by 2050. “That means we need to double food production in 40 years,” Luck said.

Even though agriculture, in theory, could showcase the “cause and effect” of new technologies introduced to farming, there’s a hitch. “It’s the weather,” said Johnson. Farmers can’t control it.

In order to collect more accurate scientific data, researchers like Johnson need farmers to stick to the same technology at least for a few years. But if something goes wrong, farmers don’t want to repeat an experiment that rendered poor yields. “It’s often a hard sell,” said Johnson, “because farmers see it as a waste of their money.”

As Winfield’s Fieni put it, “Thirty to 40 percent of yield is determined by weather.”

In the following pages, based on interviews with agriculture experts prior to FarmTech Days, EE Times has put together a variety of new technologies coming in the farming business today.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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