There are more humans alive on Earth right now than ever before—7.3 billion—and that number is still growing, with UN projections that it will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. A population of this magnitude brings a lot of challenges, food production chief among them. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that we need to boost worldwide food production by 70 percent over the next several decades in order to feed the anticipated population of 2050.
Ramping up production to that degree isn’t easy, but the engineers and farmers of today are working together to create a technological solution: precision agriculture and the “smart farm.”
Agriculture is the oldest human industry, but it’s certainly no stranger to technological change. The industrial revolutions of the 19 th and 20 th centuries replaced handheld tools and horse-drawn plows with gasoline engines and chemical fertilizers.
Now, we’re on the verge of witnessing another fundamental shift in agriculture thanks to a new industrial revolution and the technologies of Industry 4.0.
What is a Smart Farm?
Smart farming and precision agriculture involve the integration of advanced technologies into existing farming practices in order to increase production efficiency and the quality of agricultural products. As an added benefit, they also improve the quality of life for farm workers by reducing heavy labor and tedious tasks.
“What will a farm look like in 50 to 100 years?” is the question posed by David Slaughter, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at UC Davis. “We have to address population growth, climate change and labor issues, and that has brought a lot of interest to technology.”
Just about every aspect of farming can benefit from technological advancements—from planting and watering to crop health and harvesting. Most of the current and impending agricultural technologies fall into three categories that are expected to become the pillars of the smart farm: autonomous robots, drones or UAVs, and sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT).
How are these technologies already changing agriculture, and what new changes will they bring in the future?
Autonomous and Robotic Labour
Replacing human labor with automation is a growing trend across multiple industries, and agriculture is no exception. Most aspects of farming are exceptionally labor-intensive, with much of that labor comprised of repetitive and standardized tasks—an ideal niche for robotics and automation.
We’re already seeing agricultural robots—or AgBots—beginning to appear on farms and performing tasks ranging from planting and watering, to harvesting and sorting. Eventually, this new wave of smart equipment will make it possible to produce more and higher quality food with less manpower.
The tractor is the heart of a farm, used for many different tasks depending on the type of farm and the configuration of its ancillary equipment. As autonomous driving technologies advance, tractors are expected to become some of the earliest machines to be converted.
In the early stages, human effort will still be required to set up field and boundary maps, program the best field paths using path planning software, and decide other operating conditions. Humans will also still be required for regular repair and maintenance.
Nevertheless, autonomous tractors will become more capable and self-sufficient over time, especially with the inclusion of additional cameras and machine vision systems, GPS for navigation, IoT connectivity to enable remote monitoring and operation and radar and LiDAR for object detection and avoidance. All of these technological advancements will significantly diminish the need for humans to actively control these machines.
According to CNH Industrial, a company that specializes in farm equipment and previewed a concept autonomous tractor in 2016, “In the future, these concept tractors will be able to use ‘big data’ such as real-time weather satellite information to automatically make the best use of ideal conditions, independent of human input, and regardless of the time of day.”
Seeding and Planting
Sowing seeds was once a laborious manual process. Modern agriculture improved on that with seeding machines, which can cover more ground much faster than a human. However, these often use a scatter method that can be inaccurate and wasteful when seeds fall outside of the optimal location. Effective seeding requires control over two variables: planting seeds at the correct depth, and spacing plants at the appropriate distance apart to allow for optimal growth.
Precision seeding equipment is designed to maximize these variables every time. Combining geomapping and sensor data detailing soil quality, density, moisture and nutrient levels takes a lot of the guesswork out of the seeding process. Seeds have the best chance to sprout and grow and the overall crop will have a greater harvest.
As farming moves into the future, existing precision seeders will come together with autonomous tractors and IoT-enabled systems that feed information back to the farmer. An entire field could be planted this way, with only a single human monitoring the process over a video feed or digital control dashboard on a computer or tablet, while multiple machines roll across the field.
Automatic Watering and Irrigation
Subsurface Drip Irrigation (SDI) is already a prevalent irrigation method that allows farmers to control when and how much water their crops receive. By pairing these SDI systems with increasingly sophisticated IoT-enabled sensors to continuously monitor moisture levels and plant health, farmers will be able to intervene only when necessary, otherwise allowing the system to operate autonomously.
While SDI systems aren’t exactly robotic, they could operate completely autonomously in a smart farm context, relying on data from sensors deployed around the fields to perform irrigation as needed.
Weeding and Crop Maintenance
Weeding and pest control are both critical aspects of plant maintenance and tasks that are perfect for autonomous robots. A few prototypes are already being developed, including Bonirob from Deepfield Robotics, and an automated cultivator that is part of the UC Davis Smart Farm research initiative.
The Bonirob robot is about the size of a car and can navigate autonomously through a field of crops using video, LiDAR and satellite GPS. Its developers are using machine learning to teach the Bonirob to identify weeds before removing them. With advanced machine learning, or even artificial intelligence (AI) being integrated in the future, machines such as this could entirely replace the need for humans to manually weed or monitor crops.
The UC Davis prototype operates a bit differently. Their cultivator is towed behind a tractor and is equipped with imaging systems that can identify a fluorescent dye that the seeds are coated with when planted, and which transfers to the young plants as they sprout and start to grow. The cultivator then cuts out the non-glowing weeds.
While these examples are robots designed for weeding, the same base machine can be equipped with sensors, cameras and sprayers to identify pests and application of insecticides.
These robots, and others like them, will not be operating in isolation on farms of the future. They will be connected to autonomous tractors and the IoT, enabling the whole operation to practically run itself.
Harvesting from Field, Tree and Vine
Harvesting depends on knowing when the crops are ready, working around the weather and completing the harvest in the limited window of time available. There are a wide variety of machines currently in use for crop harvesting, many of which would be suitable for automation in the future.
Traditional combine, forage, and specialty harvesters could immediately benefit from autonomous tractor technology to traverse the fields. Add in more sophisticated tech with sensors and IoT connectivity, and the machines could automatically begin the harvest as soon as conditions are ideal, freeing the farmer for other tasks.
Developing technology capable of delicate harvest work, like picking fruit from trees or vegetables such as tomatoes, is where high-tech farms will really shine. Engineers are working to create the right robotic components for these sophisticated tasks, such as Panasonic’s tomato-picking robot which incorporates sophisticated cameras and algorithms to identify a tomato’s color, shape and location to determine its ripeness.