Precision farming technology is helping save water, control our use of chemicals and increase agricultural yield in ever more targeted ways. It’s reimagining what kind of land and labour we need to produce food for an ever-growing, global population.
What is precision farming?
Precision farming uses technology, data, and automation to increase yield and profit while reducing the amount of labour, land, water, and agrichemicals that traditional methods require.
The new wave of Agritech incorporates every innovation from simple but revolutionary widgets, to advanced robotics, MEMs sensors, mobile and satellite tech. It’s offering exciting opportunities for all kinds of OEMs to contribute to a new kind of growth.
Weeds and pests: the enemy of high yield farming
Weeds, pests, and disease were for centuries the enemies of farmers and portents of famine. Then, the advent of chemical spraying in the 1940s and 50s, seemed like a magic wand. With the mechanised application of herbicides and pesticides, the choking influence of weeds and blight were finally bought under human control.
But there were unintended consequences. Organophosphates, carbamates and neonicotinoids proved dangerous to humans. Herbicides needed increased application over time to be effective. Meanwhile, weeds self-selected for resistance. The effect of the overuse of chemicals on the wider eco-system could also be profound, killing wildlife and contaminating water supplies.
Spraying: when one size kills all
For many, the future fertility of the land is still being threatened by the indiscriminate application of chemicals on farmland.
“Below the surface of fields covered with monoculture crops of corn and soybeans, chemicals are destroying the very foundations of the web of life,”
says Dr. Nathan Donley, of the Centre for Biological Diversity.
Agrichemicals are controversial, do we still need them?
Some estimates say that by 2050 farmers will have to increase productivity by 50% to feed the global population.
And as the amount of available farmland decreases we need to ensure yield is maximised from yet smaller and more unpromising plots of land.
So, the need to control pests by spraying crops still remains. It’s a central part of the agricultural weaponry we have been developing for millennia. There’s little doubt that it can help us extract more value from the remaining land we have available for cultivation.
Luckily, right now we have the opportunity to refine and target chemical use through Agritech, so that we can prevent its most devastating side effects.
Smarter farming with Bosch
The latest precision farming tech is helping us restrict agrichemical use, to when it is really needed; applying just the right amount of herbicide, at the right place, in the right amount.
In Bosch’s new smart farming initiative, sensor tech is powering autonomous vehicles scanning land and releasing chemicals to manage localised damage from weeds.
Deep learning algorithms train the machines to recognise the different plants in the field and distinguish between weeds and crops. Finally, the software automatically selects the type of herbicide to spray, showing the sprayer where to work. Small bursts of spray replace blanket operations, reducing waste, minimising unintentional damage to the land while increasing yield.
But is there an even better and more environmentally conscious way of controlling weeds?
Robotic weeding is an innovation that may help to replace the use of herbicides altogether.
James Johnson, is one farmer in new Mexico who sees chemical farming as a drag on his resources and counterproductive in his search for increased yield:
“It was like we had 40, 50 years of success and then suddenly we plateaued and started falling off this cliff,” says James Johnson. “I started to look at what we were doing and realized most of it was self-inflicted. We were hurting the biology…and a huge amount of our budget was going towards chemistry.”
Chemicals were exhausting the land and undermining its long-term fertility. They were killing weeds only to be overtaken by different, resistant strains. Johnson worked with Californian start-up Carbon Robotics to trial their Autonomous LaserWeeder to control his weed problem. The Laser weeder uses a combination of laser tech, GPS and AI to kill 100,000 weeds an hour.
Pilot schemes like these are going on throughout the world, with technology being refined and optimised, prior to full-blown commercialisation.
12,000 years ago irrigation was among the first agricultural technologies to help bring more land under cultivation. The Babylonians, Egyptians and Romans fed whole empires through their control of water supplies, cutting channels to take advantage of tides and spring swells to feed the land. Channeling floodwater remains a familiar irrigation tactic for farmers today, but it is inefficient. 70% of water used in this way ends up lost due to runoff, wind and evaporation. It can also sweep away fertiliser and chemical treatments from the land, contaminating other parts of the countryside in the process.
But now, thanks to global warming, expected flooding events are becoming rarer and entirely different irrigation techniques need to be deployed to conserve and reuse available water.
In Israel, ‘drip irrigation’ was the accidental discovery that led to the transformation of traditional water management practice in drought prone areas.
A simple leak in some pipework led to the discovery that crops fared better when watered directly at root level. This insight led to engineered underground systems of valves, emitters and filters that drip fed crops, conserved water supplies and increased yield.
Further strides in engineering led to the N-Drip - a zero pressure micro-irrigation solution that was suitable for staple crops around the world including potatoes, corn, wheat, rice, cotton and alfalfa. It’s delivering cheaper and more effective irrigation in different locations, reducing maintenance requirements.
Today, as climate change continues to wreak havoc around the world, micro-irrigation tech is also being made over by satellite scanning, soil sensors, machine learning and robotics.
Farmland in China is being fitted with sensors that monitors moisture levels in real time, sending filtered water to spots in need of replenishment, conserving valuable water resource in the process. Meanwhile, landowners themselves are monitoring and controlling irrigation robotics through apps on their smartphones.
Indoor and vertical farming
Indoor and vertical farming is also reinventing agricultural practice. Techniques of controlled environment agriculture (CEO), such as aeroponics and hydroponics are driving greater yield while using less space and water.
Managed by sensors, run by robots, safe from pests and weeds, and with watering regimes tightly controlled; these farming units can be squeezed into unconventional locations while delivering unrivalled yield. Abandoned tracts of urban waste land, or city centre lots can now be used to grow higher quality food, closer to where it is actually needed.
Grov's Olympus Tower (the worlds largest vertical farming system) can produce 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of sprouted wheat or barley grass per day using less than five percent of the water and replacing between 35 to 50 acres compared to traditional farming
Precision farming and the data revolution
But while these systems are impressive there are some complex trade-offs that still need to be worked through. Yield might be high against water consumption, but high levels of energy consumption might inflate carbon footprint. However, if vertical farming for perishables can take place in urban settings, food miles may be reduced, so the overall environmental impact can be limited.
Part of the role of technology will be to report in real-time on conditions, productivity and carbon footprint to help those operations optimise their efficiency on an hour-by-hour basis. Data is key to the success of any precision farming endeavour.
Precision farming technology brings different disciplines together from AV to sensor tech, robotics, and AI. It's this collaborative approach that will help deliver high-yield, carbon-neutral farming solutions that are fit for the future.
Could your business be part of the next agricultural revolution?