Outlook •  11/9/2022

Precision Agriculture Changing the Face of Farming

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Robots, tools for automation, and other kinds of precision-agriculture equipment are growing smarter and more functional—and changing the farming landscape

Farming equipment doesn’t typically generate much buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show. But in January 2022, among the usual array of tablets and smart refrigerators sat the first fully autonomous tractor introduced by a major agricultural brand. The vehicle features six stereo cameras, enabling 360-degree obstacle detection, and a neural network that classifies each pixel in about 100 milliseconds. While it will take years for such tractors to proliferate across the world’s farm fields, the larger message is clear: Precision agriculture has fully arrived. 

Agricultural technology is increasingly revolutionizing farming by providing deeper, more immersive data about a range of farm metrics, as well as increased automation and widespread instrumentation. Robots and artificial intelligence are gradually picking up a larger share of field labor, and various forms of remote sensing and imaging technology are helping farmers plant, grow, and harvest crops with increasing precision and success.

 

“Whether it’s crops and livestock or the food chain, there’s a tremendous level of innovation,” says John Fulton, a professor at Ohio State with a specialty in precision agriculture. “I just don’t know that folks recognize how quickly things have advanced.”

 

This isn’t just the case in the United States. Brazil is nicknamed one of the world’s breadbaskets because its farmers fed 10 percent of the world’s population in 2020, and while complex local regulations are an obstacle, precision agriculture is becoming a difference maker for small-scale farming collectives and commercial operators alike. Growers there are using agricultural technologies to boost productivity and make crop-related decisions backed by real-time data.

 

Smarter solutions

How cutting-edge are some precision ag technologies? In two recent instances, in Iowa and Nebraska, concerned neighbors called the police after seeing autonomous tractors in fields and figuring that something had gone awry. Despite all the hype and occasional confusion about driverless vehicles, some of the most important technological breakthroughs are improving farming in subtler and more incremental ways.

Tractor in Field
Tractor in Field

Agricultural technology is increasingly revolutionizing farming by providing deeper, more immersive data about a range of farm metrics, as well as increased automation and widespread instrumentation. Robots and artificial intelligence are gradually picking up a larger share of field labor, and various forms of remote sensing and imaging technology are helping farmers plant, grow, and harvest crops with increasing precision and success.

 

“Whether it’s crops and livestock or the food chain, there’s a tremendous level of innovation,” says John Fulton, a professor at Ohio State with a specialty in precision agriculture. “I just don’t know that folks recognize how quickly things have advanced.”

 

This isn’t just the case in the United States. Brazil is nicknamed one of the world’s breadbaskets because its farmers fed 10 percent of the world’s population in 2020, and while complex local regulations are an obstacle, precision agriculture is becoming a difference maker for small-scale farming collectives and commercial operators alike. Growers there are using agricultural technologies to boost productivity and make crop-related decisions backed by real-time data.

 

Smarter solutions

How cutting-edge are some precision ag technologies? In two recent instances, in Iowa and Nebraska, concerned neighbors called the police after seeing autonomous tractors in fields and figuring that something had gone awry. Despite all the hype and occasional confusion about driverless vehicles, some of the most important technological breakthroughs are improving farming in subtler and more incremental ways.

Wesley Porter, associate professor and extension precision agriculture and irrigation specialist at the University of Georgia (UGA), says the combined use of drones, satellite imagery, and multispectral imaging is revolutionizing real-time farming. UAVs have improved recently in tangible ways—battery life and the inclusion of flight-planning software, for example—while imaging technology is increasingly able to zero in on fields in ways that provide actionable data sets to farmers.

 

These tools allow growers to quickly identify and address any in-season issues in their fields. “It seems like more and more people are getting involved in those types of remote sensing technology,” Porter says. “These types of imagery let them monitor crops instead of relying on traditional practices to try to make some determination. That extra layer of data is building confidence that these are things they can work with and benefit from.”

 

That’s also true in Brazil, where one of the biggest issues farmers face is low soil fertility. Farmers are increasingly turning to precision ag for soil correction and fertilization—specifically, soil-sampling technology mounted on ATVs that can provide them with an exact blueprint for how to maximize a field’s potential. Many growers then deploy satellite or aerial images and active sensors for the normalized difference vegetation index (NVDI), a measure of the state of plant health based on how it reflects light at different frequencies.

 

Porter’s Georgia colleagues are building and evolving robots that undertake such tasks as weed eradication, spraying, and selective harvesting and termination of crops. “And that’s not just here at UGA,” he says. “Most universities are focusing in some form on robotic operation in the field, whether that’s planting, whether that’s harvest, whether it’s in-season monitoring, et cetera.” One goal is to produce a robot that can execute more than one field operation, which will help justify the cost. That’s a critical issue, as farmers—sensitive to the practicalities of running a business—face hard-nosed calculations about the cost-benefit ratio of new technologies.

 

Meanwhile, various forms of instrumentation are now central to farm operations, Porter says. Combines outfitted with sensors monitor grain flow and harvest losses, making real-time adjustments to maximize yield. Automated systems plant seeds at precise, optimal depths, and today’s irrigation systems rely on remote sensors that can be monitored and manipulated via smartphone—a far cry from the old days of irrigation, when a loose fitting could leak for days before being discovered. 

           

Better yields, greener planet

The promise of precision ag also extends to the environment. Bruno Basso, a Michigan State University Research Foundation professor who specializes in row-crop production systems, says that some of the most exciting technological advances he’s seen involve regenerative practices—building better soil health.

 

His research focuses on using technology that identifies and improves performance variability within fields in ways that also help the environment. Using drones, historical-yield field maps, and modeling, Basso’s lab created and distributed 25,000 acres’ worth of prescription maps focused on low-yield or problem fields on farms ranging from North Dakota to Mississippi.

 

The maps offer specific blueprints for reclaiming unproductive areas, which might mean, for example, planting cover crops to regenerate the soil. The plans both quantify the reduction in emissions that can in turn be sold as carbon credits and suggest ways to increase biodiversity. The Natural Resources Conservation Service then pays farmers $10 an acre to implement the recommendations. Basso says these sorts of turnkey solutions are critical. “You can’t just give farmers more work to do—more homework,” he says.

Man kneeling next to drone on grassy dirt road
Man kneeling next to drone on grassy dirt road

Wesley Porter, associate professor and extension precision agriculture and irrigation specialist at the University of Georgia (UGA), says the combined use of drones, satellite imagery, and multispectral imaging is revolutionizing real-time farming. UAVs have improved recently in tangible ways—battery life and the inclusion of flight-planning software, for example—while imaging technology is increasingly able to zero in on fields in ways that provide actionable data sets to farmers.

 

These tools allow growers to quickly identify and address any in-season issues in their fields. “It seems like more and more people are getting involved in those types of remote sensing technology,” Porter says. “These types of imagery let them monitor crops instead of relying on traditional practices to try to make some determination. That extra layer of data is building confidence that these are things they can work with and benefit from.”

 

That’s also true in Brazil, where one of the biggest issues farmers face is low soil fertility. Farmers are increasingly turning to precision ag for soil correction and fertilization—specifically, soil-sampling technology mounted on ATVs that can provide them with an exact blueprint for how to maximize a field’s potential. Many growers then deploy satellite or aerial images and active sensors for the normalized difference vegetation index (NVDI), a measure of the state of plant health based on how it reflects light at different frequencies.

 

Porter’s Georgia colleagues are building and evolving robots that undertake such tasks as weed eradication, spraying, and selective harvesting and termination of crops. “And that’s not just here at UGA,” he says. “Most universities are focusing in some form on robotic operation in the field, whether that’s planting, whether that’s harvest, whether it’s in-season monitoring, et cetera.” One goal is to produce a robot that can execute more than one field operation, which will help justify the cost. That’s a critical issue, as farmers—sensitive to the practicalities of running a business—face hard-nosed calculations about the cost-benefit ratio of new technologies.

 

Meanwhile, various forms of instrumentation are now central to farm operations, Porter says. Combines outfitted with sensors monitor grain flow and harvest losses, making real-time adjustments to maximize yield. Automated systems plant seeds at precise, optimal depths, and today’s irrigation systems rely on remote sensors that can be monitored and manipulated via smartphone—a far cry from the old days of irrigation, when a loose fitting could leak for days before being discovered. 

           

Better yields, greener planet

The promise of precision ag also extends to the environment. Bruno Basso, a Michigan State University Research Foundation professor who specializes in row-crop production systems, says that some of the most exciting technological advances he’s seen involve regenerative practices—building better soil health.

 

His research focuses on using technology that identifies and improves performance variability within fields in ways that also help the environment. Using drones, historical-yield field maps, and modeling, Basso’s lab created and distributed 25,000 acres’ worth of prescription maps focused on low-yield or problem fields on farms ranging from North Dakota to Mississippi.

 

The maps offer specific blueprints for reclaiming unproductive areas, which might mean, for example, planting cover crops to regenerate the soil. The plans both quantify the reduction in emissions that can in turn be sold as carbon credits and suggest ways to increase biodiversity. The Natural Resources Conservation Service then pays farmers $10 an acre to implement the recommendations. Basso says these sorts of turnkey solutions are critical. “You can’t just give farmers more work to do—more homework,” he says.

Farmers considering bolstering their technological toolkit will need to look closely at what will benefit their specific operation, experts say. Among the matrix of considerations is access to broadband and whether the local workforce includes employees trained to run higher-tech equipment.

 

In fact, the ongoing labor shortage that many farming operations now face highlights both the importance of precision agriculture and the challenges of implementing it, says Porter. “We have to think about who’s going to do these operations,” Porter says. “Farmers are going to need very, very tech-savvy guys, so I think we’re starting to see a shift in interest in this across the nation.”

 

Indeed, the good news is that the industry is already recognizing where the gaps exist. Land grant universities, colleges, and teaching institutions are increasingly offering courses related to ag technology, and universities are quickly developing majors that meet at the intersection of farming know-how and technological savvy.

 

While there is much ground left to be covered, precision-farming advancements have experts optimistic about the prospects for the future of farming. “I feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Porter says. “I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I think the momentum is right.”

small automated bright green vehicles in dirt field
small automated bright green vehicles in dirt field

Farmers considering bolstering their technological toolkit will need to look closely at what will benefit their specific operation, experts say. Among the matrix of considerations is access to broadband and whether the local workforce includes employees trained to run higher-tech equipment.

 

In fact, the ongoing labor shortage that many farming operations now face highlights both the importance of precision agriculture and the challenges of implementing it, says Porter. “We have to think about who’s going to do these operations,” Porter says. “Farmers are going to need very, very tech-savvy guys, so I think we’re starting to see a shift in interest in this across the nation.”

 

Indeed, the good news is that the industry is already recognizing where the gaps exist. Land grant universities, colleges, and teaching institutions are increasingly offering courses related to ag technology, and universities are quickly developing majors that meet at the intersection of farming know-how and technological savvy.

 

While there is much ground left to be covered, precision-farming advancements have experts optimistic about the prospects for the future of farming. “I feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Porter says. “I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I think the momentum is right.”