Automation is gradually making an impact on every industry. The agriculture sector has been slow to embrace this new technology, but that is starting to change. How is automation revolutionizing the agriculture industry, and how can farmers start implementing it to improve their lives?
Farming technology is changing
Agriculture technology has come a long way since hand-sown fields and animal-drawn plows. It’s had to change to keep up with the food needs of a growing global population. Today, farmers rely on the Internet of Things (IoT), aerial images, drones, and GPS technologies to help them produce a bountiful crop. For example, instead of applying herbicides or pesticides to an entire crop, new technologies allow farm managers to treat a specific area or even an individual plant, depending on the needs of the field. This practice ends up being better for the environment because it doesn’t put a lot of potentially toxic chemicals where they will end up in stormwater or irrigation runoff.
Backup generators are another technology that has changed the way we look at farming. Electricity has become integral to the agriculture industry, powering everything from equipment to barn heaters to keep livestock safe. Power outages in America quadrupled during the first decade of the 21st century, so having a backup generator on a farm isn’t just a good idea — it’s almost mandatory, and will continue to be so as more farms implement automation to help keep things moving.
As the automation revolution continues, how will it change the agriculture industry?
The automation revolution
Automation is beginning to make an appearance in the agriculture industry as the demand for various types of food increase. Small farms often depend on a single person, which makes automation essential to keep things working. One great example is Kyler Laird, who owns and manages a 1,700-acre farm in Indiana by himself. Laird has a master’s degree in agricultural engineering and in 2016, redesigned a John Deere tractor to run via remote control. Since then, he’s designed Tractorbots, as he calls them, to drill soybean fields and pull grain carts autonomously.
Now, Laird’s concepts are useful for his small farm, but what about for the massive multi-million-acre farms that dot the Midwestern landscape?
AgBots — agricultural robots — are starting to appear on farms across the country, handling everything from planting to irrigation and even harvesting. Experts expect tractors to be one of the first types of farming equipment to make the transition from human-controlled to autonomous. A company called CNH Industrial showed off a concept for an autonomous tractor in 2016.
Subsurface drip irrigation systems can keep a farm irrigated without any intervention from human workers, using IoT-enabled sensors to determine when a crop needs watering. These sensors can monitor the amount of moisture in the ground to figure out the perfect time to irrigate without wasting water.
Robots are even working on weeding, something that was traditionally a human task or accomplished through herbicides. Most weeding requires farmers to go through the time-consuming process of looking for weeds and pulling them by hand. A prototype AgBot by UC Davis identifies weeds because they lack the fluorescent dye that coats the crops at the time of planting. If the weeds don’t glow, they need to come out. This bot, dubbed Bonirob, is part of UC Davis’ Smart Farm Initiative that is working on creating new smart technologies to support the agriculture industry.
The American agriculture industry produces enough food to feed the country, as well as exporting roughly 25 percent of its yields. Automation will help overcome some of the challenges the industry will face in the coming years. How can farm owners start implementing automation on their farms?
They can start by reaching out to agriculture automation startups to see what kind of equipment they offer and how it could work for them. Agricultural automation is still in its infancy, so it will take going directly to the manufacturers — or creating it themselves — to bring automation to the farm.
Automation in the agriculture industry will quite likely mean the difference between feeding the world and a food shortage in the coming decades as the planet’s population reaches 10 billion and more. Automated farms are the wave of the future, and the foundation for them is already here.
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her website Schooled by Science.