The future of farming…. ‘With a survey drone here and smart tractor there’

Posted By : Joe Bush
The future of farming…. ‘With a survey drone here and smart tractor there’

As children, most of us remember reeling off the various farm yard animals included in the popular nursery rhyme ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’. However, the next generation of toddlers may have to add another couple of verses. Advances in technology are changing the industry around the world, meaning that the farms of tomorrow will look quite different.

The deployment of smart technology and the influence of the Internet of Things (IoT) has been well documented in other industries such as automotive and medical. In many ways this is hardly surprising as these sectors have always been at the forefront of innovation and early adopters of ground-breaking technology.

However, agriculture is another industry that is fast emerging as one that is set to be revolutionised by the IoT. The image of a typical farmyard is one of hulking lumps of machinery in every corner, and odorous, dirty pens full of livestock. As such, it’s probably one of the last places you’d expect to find the latest in smart technology.

This is now changing however, as the IoT is actively solving real world problems in this arena which, although very different to other industries, still faces similar challenges to efficiency, safety and productivity across sectors such as security, interoperability, connectivity and open source. Some of the tasks where technology is helping farming become smarter are:

Survey drones: UAVs are being deployed in a growing list of applications, and one of these is to survey fields - mapping weed growth, crop yield, topsoil moisture and soil variation. Fields can be viewed from multiple angles and in infrared and can cover approximately 1,000 acres an hour. A number of companies in the UK are already offering these drone services and farms can apply to Defra for a grant to go towards drone imaging. To a lesser degree, drones could also be employed to herd livestock – this could prove particularly well suited to farms that keep fewer animals over wider tracts of hard to access terrain, for example in Scotland.

Agribot fleets: Specialised agribots can work in teams to tend crops – laser weeding (reducing the use of herbicides), fertilising and harvesting. Robots that are capable of microdot application of fertiliser can reduce fertiliser cost by 99%. These robots can also take over the more laborious and physically demanding tasks in agriculture and can potentially work 24/7. An example of this technology in use is the Broccoli Bot which uses 3D imaging cameras to help harvest broccoli - one of the world’s largest vegetable crops which is traditionally harvested by hand.

Farming data: A farm generates vast quantities of rich and varied data. This data, which is stored in the cloud, can be presented to the farmer in a practical way to allow a precise response to each plant or animal. The data can also be used as digital evidence to reduce time spent completing grant applications or carrying out farm inspections – potentially saving an average of £5,500 per farm, per year. In addition, data can be integrated with the Met Office, for example, to enable and enhance real time decision making.

Texting cows: Machine-to machine technology and sensors attached to livestock can allow monitoring of animal health and well-being. Texts can be sent to alert farmers when, for example, a cow goes into labour or develops an infection. Technology currently on trial includes a wireless sensor that sits in a cow’s stomach which can monitor ruminal pH for the detection of diseases such as SARA, which can reduce milk yields. The sensor is activated when the temperature of the cow rises above 31°C, which indicates a change in pH. Sixty percent of farms that have trialed this technology have reported an increase in milk production.

Smart tractors: Despite the multiple uses for agribots, tractors are still required for many large scale and heavy logistic tasks present in agricultural environments. However, around 90% of the energy invested in cultivation is to repair damage caused by tractors. Modern tractors are therefore equipped with GPS controlled steering and optimised route planning which can reduce soil erosion (by ensuring tractors follow the same tracks) and increase fuel savings by up to ten percent.

While these technological innovations and terms such as ‘smart tractors’ and ‘agribots’ may appear fanciful to some, and a ‘nice to have’ rather than playing an essential part in the future of agriculture, the truth is that smart farming has a serious role to play. The Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has predicted that the global population will inflate to 9.6 billion people by 2050, and as such, food production will need to increase by 70% in order to meet that growth - all in the face of numerous challenges such as limited arable lands, the increasing need for fresh water, the impact of climate change, the price and availability of energy and the impact of urbanisation on rural labour supply (fewer young people are going into the industry, raising the average age of farming professionals).

Of course, one way to achieve this is through the concept of smart farming to optimise processes and resources, ensure that available land is utilised in the most efficient way possible, and to enhance sustainable agriculture – thus increasing the quality and quantity of production.

It should be noted that there are barriers that are blocking the route to smart farming that do need to be addressed. For example, as the agriculture industry is extremely low margin, investments in innovation are difficult, which is why the cost of smart farming is still high – to the extent that the pioneer of the technology is primarily the larger US farms. However, smart farming has gained some traction in small field farming such as in vineyards. Other concerns include patchy rural wireless and broadband coverage and still maturing specialist agricultural software.

One key aspect to the roll-out of more smart technologies within the agriculture industry will also be to train farmers in the use and language of the technology. The disciplines and skills required for 21st century agriculture include robotics, computer-based imaging, GPS technology, science-based solutions, climate forecasting and environmental controls.

While the adoption of smart farming technologies is relatively slow paced, there are government subsidies and projects in place in the UK, Germany, Spain and The Netherlands, for example, which have been put in place to promote smart agriculture. And, between 2007 and 2013, the EU allocated €95m to the European Rural Development Fund to assist with the modernisation of the agriculture industry.

An example of smart farming in action can be seen in the white paper below detailing the work that Imagination Technologies is doing with blueberry farmers in Portugal. The company provides its Creator Device Server and Awa LWM2M library as open source framework components for IoT developers as part of its Creator programme.  This solution is being used by a company in Portugal to monitor the soil humidity and irrigation of their blueberry bushes.


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