In recent years, technology in agriculture, also known as AgTech has rapidly changed the industry. In 2015, the industry’s investment in technology reached a whopping $4.6 billion—and that was three years ago! However, our population is continuing to grow, which has the potential to affect resource availability going forward. In recent studies, it was found that the industry’s output must increase by 60% by 2030.
How do we do it? People in the industry—farmers, food producers—must embrace the digital transformation trends in agriculture. By using technology as a sustainable and scalable resource, we will be able to take agriculture to new heights, keeping farm to fork in our future.
IoT and Sensors in the Field
The IoT is disrupting the agriculture industry – in a good way. In fact, there is extreme potential for using the IoT within the food sector. According to a report by Cisco, there is an estimated $14.4 trillion in value at stake with the emergence of IoT alone. The IoT is simplifying and streamlining the collection, inspection and overall distributing of agricultural resources using sensors on equipment and materials.
Sensors placed strategically around fields along with image recognition technologies are allowing farmers to view their crops from anywhere in the world. These sensors send farmers up to date information in real-time, so changes can be made accordingly to their crops. I don’t have much of a green thumb, but if I had an app that would tell me when the plants in my backyard needed water or some other type of nourishment, I think I would be able to keep them alive longer. IoT sensors in the field are doing the same thing for farmers, but obviously on a larger scale resulting in higher food production with less waste—exactly what this industry needs.
IoT and Sensors in Equipment
Much like the technology within the field, sensors are being placed on agricultural equipment to track the health of the machine and more. Using the term “precision agriculture” tractors and other farming equipment are being manufactured with navigation systems and a variety of sensors. Some of these sensors are built with the capability to compensate for uneven terrain using GPS. Some are built for yield mapping and harvest documentation, right from the cab of the implement. While others are monitoring when tractors need to be serviced. All together, these sensors are reducing the amount of downtime machines experience.
When you’re working in your garden, you can typically see all of your plants at once, but farmers work in fields that span hundreds of acres meaning the only way they’ve been able to get a bird’s eye view is from a plane. Imagine the return on investment if farmers could visualize their crops using an aerial source—without having to charter a plane. Drones are being used for crop monitoring widely across the U.S. as a means to combat drought and other harmful environmental factors. Drones that produce 3D imaging can be used to predict soil quality through analysis and planning seed planting patterns.
Drones are also being used to spray chemicals on crops while being careful not to penetrate groundwater. Recent studies have shown that drones can increase the speed of spraying by five times compared to other types of machinery.
Farming and Robotics
Much like using robots and artificial intelligence in other industries, robotics within agriculture would improve productivity and would result in higher and faster yields. Such robots like the spraying and weeding robots recently acquired by John Deere can reduce agrochemical use by an incredible 90%.
Other startup robotics companies are experimenting with laser and camera guidance for identifying and removing weeds without human intervention. These robots can use the guidance to navigate between rows of crops on its own, reducing the manpower behind it. Other companies are creating plant-transplanting robots that add a new level of efficiency to traditional methods and finally, automation is being tested for fruit-picking and nut harvesting, something that has always seemed to be too delicate for robotics in the past.
RFID Sensors and Tracking
After crops are harvested, RFID sensors can be used to track food from the field to the store. The end user, or the consumer, will be able to follow a detailed trail about the food they consume from the farm it came to the location where it was purchased. This technology could increase trustworthiness for manufacturers and their responsibility to provide fresh produce and goods.
I’m not saying it could reduce outbreaks of E. Coli or other harmful bacteria, but if there is an outbreak, it would be easy to track the produce back to the farm or factory where it was processed. Think about the lettuce recall that happened a few weeks ago. The bacteria affected patients in 16 states, but the CDC couldn’t trace the origin so they issued a country-wide warning. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little skittish right now eating romaine. If all crops had RFID sensors, outbreaks and panic could be minimized.
These tracking systems could reduce apprehension regarding allergens and health requirements for consumers. As for the farmer, the idea that their goods are being tracked will bring about a sense of relief. After all, they can ensure their products are making it safe to their consumer’s table.
Machine Learning and Analytics
Perhaps one of the most innovative pieces of the digital transformation is the ability to use machine learning and advanced analytics to mine data for trends. This can start way before the planting of the seed, with plant breeders. Machine learning can predict which traits and genes will be best for crop production, giving farmers all over the world the best breed for their location and climate.
Machine learning algorithms can also be used within the manufacturing aspect of agriculture, where consumers purchase their products. These algorithms can show which products are being purchased the most and which products are falling under in the market. Thus, creating proficient and effective forecasts for future farming.
I believe that the future of agriculture depends on its digital transformation. Farmers will benefit from each of these digital transformation trends in agriculture, giving them freedom from concerns over the environment, a better yielding crop and the ability to manage their crops in new and efficient methods. As our population continues to grow, our agricultural methods must grow with it. It’s time to take advantage of the technology we have at our disposal to put food on our table and create peace of mind for our farmers.