How Sensors, Robotics And Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Agriculture
April 11, 2017
This article starts as follows:
The world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. China and India, the two largest countries in the world, have populations totalling around one billion. In four years, by 2022, India is predicted to have the largest population in the world, surpassing China.
This means we need new ways to grow food that are smarter and helps regulate our use of land, water and energy in order to feed the planet and avoid a global food crisis.
Farmers, ranchers and growers the world over are transitioning to precision agricultural methods, i.e., subdividing their acreage into many unique sub-plots -- in some cases right down to the individual plant, tree, or animal. These methods enable increased productivity, trace-ability and lower overall costs. Low-cost aerial vehicles, sensors and cameras are integral to the process and are being used to map, observe, sense and spray.
Digital Farms Are Already A Reality
Robotic automation is already widely practiced and can be seen today in milking systems and increasingly in precision techniques that use sensors and drone-mounted cameras to steer tractors and to monitor soil for temperature, moisture, disease, varmints, crop quantity, weather damage, and nutrient content.
At RoboUniverse in San Diego in December, agricultural robots and the labor shortage were quickly identified as the biggest issues facing the industry today. Water scarcity and field health were other key issues mentioned, but it’s labor that keeps farmers up at night and robotics that could come to their rescue.
Trends and forecasts
Data generated by sensors or drones and collected by farms on the field or during field operations, offer a wealth of information about soil, seeds, livestock, crops, costs, farm equipment and the use of water and fertilizer. Low-cost Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and advanced analytics are already beginning to help farmers analyze data like weather, temperature, moisture, prices, and communication signals, and provide insights on how to optimize and increase yield, improve farm planning, make smarter decisions about the level of resources needed, and determine when and where to distribute those resources in order to prevent waste and increase yield.
Efficiency and productivity will increase in the next few years as precision agricultural methods become more prevalent and farms become smarter and more connected, but this could just be the precursor to even greater use of robotic technology in farming.
The Australian Agricultural Company, the oldest and largest listed beef business in the country, issues all its station staff with smart wrist devices — the cattle station alternative to Fitbits — that automatically record the weight, growth and genetic information of every beast that passes through its outback cattle yards and relays it back to central computers. AACo board director Shehan Dissanayake, who has a background in technology and life sciences, is determined that the company, with its 500,000 cattle and seven million hectares of northern properties, use the latest technology and genetics available to produce high-quality meat as efficiently as possible. “Fundamentally, biologically speaking, a cattle company is about energy conversion; we need to understand the metabolism of the animal, how it metabolises grass and to be responsible to nature,” Dissanayake says.
On Mercer’s farm, science and technology drive almost every decision about growing, harvesting and selling his abundant crops of wheat, barley, canola and beans, rather than what his father and grandfather did before him. New varieties of grain bred by CSIRO to suit his climate deliver better crops. Sensors in his paddock check soil moisture, nitrogen and trace element levels; harvest time is determined by testing the sap tissue of plants. Hands-free tractors and sprayers all drive themselves along established rows using automated GPS technology, while each new crop is precision sowed just 2.5cm from the previous crop’s roots to use remaining carbon, nutrients and water. When selling crops, technology and smartphone applications play a big role. Mercer decides if it is more profitable to sell his wheat at the local town silo collection point or to drive 100km to Geelong to take advantage of bonus prices on offer to fill a ship scheduled to leave port that night. It is a choice made possible by a wealth of immediate real-time information fed daily to his mobile phone.