Better crops at lower cost - the promise of smart farms

Posted by Massimo Torri on Oct 2, 2018 8:45:00 AM

It’s funny—sometimes we talk about smart farms as if they were a 2010-to-now phenomenon. But when you see how farm yields boomed in the 20s and 30s due to hybrid crops and the addition of technology—tractors—you realize farms have been getting smarter for decades.

Now to the extent that we’re no longer talking about managing water, fertilizer and pesticides by the acre, but now by the square meter. Okay, we’re not quite down to that level yet…but it won’t be very long at the rate things are progressing right now!

Since 2007, when Steve Jobs and his team figured out how to squeeze cameras, tiny gyroscopes and touch-sensitive screens into your shirt pocket, that same technology has fanned out across every industry.

Farming is no exception.

We’re now “planting” tiny moisture monitors by the hundreds up and down row crops in the Midwestern US and other places across the globe. Those sensors send their information over the internet where they are ultimately analyzed by artificial intelligence. That AI then tells farmers what areas need more water than others so they can reach maximum production.

Then, you’ve heard the approach of the driverless car, haven’t you? Well, the driverless tractor is already here. It’s hard for a tractor to get into much trouble rumbling across acres of farmland, so it’s not in the news much.

I’m not a farmer, but I’ve known people who are, and they’ll admit that driving a tractor over hundreds of miles of straight-as-an-arrow rows for days at a time is mind-numbing. Even if you’re listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “Livin’ on a Prayer” on the headset. And it’s not that hard to program a tractor to pull a plow or a fertilizer/pesticide applicator and free the humans for brain-powered work.

Smarter Farms of the Near Future

Right now all this technology is only making suggestions to humans. That’s amazingly helpful, but in the next few years it’ll get even better.

Adding smart controllers to irrigation pivots and to fertilizer and pesticide applicators, and placing thousands or even millions of sensors in the ground will remove most human decisions from the process altogether. That’s when we’ll start managing by the square meter, or less.

For water, it’ll still be by the quarter-turn of the pivot, but that will be huge progress. AI will tell the pivot where to sprinkle less over wet areas, and where to go for a soaking spray, on a drier side.

For chemicals, the flow rate of the applicator can be raised or lowered as often as necessary as it travels behind the tractor. Sensors detecting the presence of insects, or of slower growth rates can pinpoint small areas to be targeted.

Using the Industrial Internet of Things, those machines will “talk” directly to each other instead of waiting for humans to tell them what to do.

There’s where we get into some serious efficiencies!

I’m jumping ahead here, because there are some issues to be addressed. Like how not to plow up those thousands of little sensors every spring and fall, how to cram them with enough battery and transmitter power to do their jobs and how to keep birds from thinking those sensors are a tasty lunch.

At the rate we’re solving other issues, I have no doubt that we’ll be there before long.

The biggest challenge right now is in implementation. These components are cheaper now than they were five years ago, but you still can’t grab them at Wal-Mart, especially when you need thousands of them. But especially corporate farms, which encompass several counties, could regain that cost in reduced labor and increased production. So those moves are coming.

Nowadays, farmers are demanding smarter resources, because we’re demanding more of them. Population is growing and we’re plowing up needed farmland for houses and businesses.

Whether smart farming makes food cheaper, or simply available to growing populations, its timing couldn’t be better. For all of us.

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Topics: Smart Farm