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BEEP* *BEEP* *BEEP* The farmer’s eyes pop open as he groggily reaches for the alarm clock. *CLICK* Time to work. He slides into his desk chair and takes a gulp of coffee. His eyes flicker back and forth across the monitors. Tractor 2 just finished a five-hour run planting seeds through the night and is coming in for fuel. Drone 1 is scheduled to provide its weekly aerial field assessment this morning. Soil sensors in sector 103 suggest a decrease in water usage for optimal growth. The farmer approves the change via the app and takes one last swig of coffee before heading out the door to meet the autonomous tractor for refueling.
This scenario has been developing (slowly) since the 1940s, when a farmer named Frank Andrew devised a driverless tractor setup with a central post and a cable slowly winding around it. However, the digital effort began to materialize in earnest in 2008, with John Deere’s GPS tractor guidance system. These systems are gaining traction and competition. However, they are just one technology of many likely to fundamentally change agriculture over the next decade.
In 2016 and 2017, industries ranging from oil and gas to telecommunications have seen an increased emphasis on drones, the Internet of Things (IoT), and advanced analytics, therefore causing costs to drop and technological sophistication to increase. Thus, these technologies have been and are likely to continue making the jump into the agricultural space, causing efficiency gains akin to the transition from mule-drawn plow to gas-powered tractor.
To begin, let’s talk about drones. They have many practical uses in agriculture but are primarily being used today for visual observation. At a basic level, drones provide aerial imaging of fields that was completely cost-prohibitive even a few years ago. This imaging is able to differentiate crops based on crop density, physical damage, or temperature fluctuations. The technology for this is hyperspectral, multispectral, and thermal sensing. In addition, drones are more precise than humans or manned vehicles when performing common farming activities such as spraying crops with nutrients and pesticides. Here is one example:
But drones are not the only automated machines emerging on the digital farm. So too are autonomous cars — er — tractors, in this case. The disruption here is probably the starkest. Previously, farmers needed to spend many days each year managing and riding in tractors. But when this is no longer the case, then farmers will be free to do more valuable work. In addition, driverless machines won’t be constrained by the fact that even farmers — hardworking as they are — still have to sleep.
This transition to autonomous tractors will likely occur in two phases. Tractors are expensive and continue running for decades, so transitioning the majority of tractors to autonomous versions will take, well, decades. First, retrofitting existing tractors with hardware and software to imitate the abilities of autonomous models will become common. During this phase, new tractors will provide the option for full autonomy and manual control, with human cabs still integrated. But in the second phase, the vast majority of vehicles on farms will look more akin to this model developed by Case IH:
The final hardware piece in the digital farm is low-cost soil sensors. Armed with tens or hundreds of these, farmers will be able to track the moisture and nutrient content of the soil. This will enable fine-tuned field management as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Previously, farmers had to visually inspect crops for distress or use vehicle-mounted monitoring systems. This is time- and resource-intensive. Plus, given thousands of acres, farmers are unlikely to catch crop distress at its onset, jeopardizing yield and ultimately farm revenue. However, with sensors embedded in the soil, farmers will have continuous real-time data about the conditions that lead to crop growth and blight. Farmers will now be able to identify at-risk areas before the crops begin to show signs of fatigue.
An example of this technology being implemented is Verizon’s IoT-enabled vineyard:
Up until now, we have focused on disruption with a traditional view of agriculture. But one very intriguing concept that has been getting more press in the past few years is hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. There are many variants, but the core tenet is providing nutrients to plants in the most efficient way. Hydroponic farms may be built inside, outdoors, or even in shipping containers.
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Hydroponic farms use up to 95 percent less water than traditional farming, grow crops year-round, and have stacked tiers of vegetation. In essence, this type of farming is more akin to manufacturing, thus hydroponics makes a lot of sense in urban areas if the economics work out. The food will be fresher, there will be more support of the local economy, and there will be less impact on the environment. The concept has a committed DIY community, a product in IKEA, and fascinating research at MIT in building advanced hydroponic systems. Caleb Harper, the MIT project lead, gave an exhilarating TED Talk on the subject (yes, growing plants can be exhilarating):
This video also introduces the final piece of our digital farm: analytics platforms.
As great as all this hardware is, the drones, tractors, and sensors of the present and future are only as powerful as the insights gleaned from their data. On the traditional farm, the combination of aerial images and soil conditions will be fed into platforms, along with third-party data sources such as weather forecasts or expected future crop prices. All this data will be crunched, and the platforms will provide advice ranging from subtle changes in water and fertilizer distribution to major decisions such as what crops to plant the coming season. Many of these platforms are springing up, one excellent example being FarmLogs.
All told, farms in the future will be very different from today. They will showcase the most advanced technology in burgeoning industries and require far less human interaction. But there will be challenges. Even today, high-tech tractors have become a problem for farmers, who are used to being able to tinker with noncomputerized machinery.
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I squatted down in the dirt and took stock of my inadequate tools. Over my left shoulder a massive John Deere tractor…
Together, these technologies give the world’s oldest occupation an almost Silicon Valley–like sheen. Advanced analytics, drones, autonomous vehicles, IoT sensors, and advanced manufacturing are all buzzing topics in the tech world. And they are all present in the upheaval within agriculture right now. Soon, more and more tech-savvy millennials may just discover that having a job as a (digital) farmer isn’t so farfetched after all.
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