Automation in Agriculture

As technology advances, previously unthought-of product innovations have quickly become multi-million dollar industries. Two key examples are the Internet of Things (IoT) and the wearable fitness tracker phenomenon. While seemingly very separate in terms of usage and purpose, the combination of these two technologies - and the resulting automation possibilities – are providing real and tangible benefits to the farming industry. The combination of these technologies has been termed ‘The Internet of Living Things’.

Believe it or not, fitness trackers for cows is a quickly growing industry; that is, attaching the types of sensors found in fitness trackers to cattle in order to collect biometric data on the animal’s health and wellbeing. Not only that, but according to US start-up HerdDogg, this data can be uploaded directly to Twitter meaning that technically, there are now tweeting cows.

Tweeting cows are, of course, just one example of the technological advances happening in the agricultural sector. The global market for agricultural robots had an estimated value of $2,927 million in 2016 and is expected to reach as high as $11,050 million by 2023. Automation is spilling out of the aerospace, automotive and electronic sectors into the agricultural market for a number of reasons, outlined below.

Global Challenges

The world’s population is increasing drastically, with the UN expecting it to reach 8.5 billion people by 2030, further rising to 9.7 billion people by 2050. To produce enough food for the population in 2050, the World Bank has forecast that we will have to produce at least 50% more food than we currently do. With a skills shortage and climate change having a negative effect on current crop yields, farmers are looking to technology – and in particular automation – to increase their efficiency.

For example, very few farmers hand milk cows any more and new technologies that offer benefits for both animal and farmer are becoming more commonplace. Lely, a company based in the Netherlands uses over 20,000 milking robots globally as part of a system that lets cows choose when they want to be milked rather than this routine being dictated by the farmer.

The technology can attach and detach itself while collecting data which is then fed back to the farmer. Not only does this improve the animal’s comfort and the efficiency of the milking process, but automated technology is able to work all the time; improving output rates and potentially overcoming any skills shortages in the region.

While producing more food is vitally important, there is also increasing pressure on farmers to make their processes greener and more sustainable. This means that farmers must use water efficiently, cut down on the use of pesticides and focus on sustainability as well as producing good quality food. Using autonomous vehicles and robots can be a key factor in achieving this goal.

Advancing Existing Technology

The tractor has long been a cornerstone of the farming industry, and even this is undergoing a technological makeover as technology continues to advance. Driverless tractors are now being developed by companies such as AGCO, CNH Industrial and John Deere; and these new satellite driven machines can make planting decisions, avoid collisions and operate autonomously using geopositioning technology.

However, farming environments can be complex and difficult to predict, making automated navigation a challenging prospect. While greenhouses can be fitted with tracks and more carefully controlled, outdoor farming requires self-driving vehicles to rely on careful planning and closed-loop control alongside complex arrays of sensors and camera technologies that allow the robot to detect and appropriately respond to environmental hazards and stimuli.

In each case, these autonomous devices are connected to a central control system, reporting on their status and receiving instructions in a similar way to automated systems in a factory setting.

In essence, driverless tractors have the potential to change the role of the farmer from a driver to that of a fleet manager; that is, an analyst that oversees a group of robots. Again, these new automated systems can operate continuously, 24 hours a day, providing a marked boost to efficiency and output.

Drones

Drone technology has real applications and benefits in the agricultural sector, and drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) are being used to survey crops, land and livestock. Traditionally, satellite imaging has been used to achieve this with images taken at 14 day intervals, but the use of drones has opened up the possibility of surveying crops at any time.

This increase in flexibility can mean the difference between saving and losing a whole yield of crop during, for example, an infestation of pests. The quicker an issue is identified, the quicker the drones can be utilized to perform crop spraying activities to tackle the problem.

As well as the detection of potential risks like pest infestations, farmers are now able to use infrared drones to track the health of crops. This means that crops can be watered more efficiently, thus helping make better use of water supplies.

These drones, used in combination with ground-based sensors, can provide accurate data on a crop’s needs, meaning that water levels and nutrients can be measured to trigger the automated application of fertilizer and irrigation as appropriate. Furthermore, the use of sensor arrays alongside artificial intelligence technology can automate common agricultural tasks such as weed removal.

Harvesting Technology

Historically, the harvesting of crops by automated means has been difficult due to the delicate nature of fresh fruits and vegetables. Crops such as these may become bruised during a robot harvest because traditional industrial robots are generally designed to move much more robust items.

In September 2017 though, the Hands Free Hectare project marked a huge milestone in the automated agriculture industry. A collaborative project between Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, the project was able to produce the first fully automated harvest as a crop was planted, tended and harvested without any human being present in the field at any time. The project used a tractor and combine harvester that had been modified to include lasers, GPS and cameras alongside a series of drones that were responsible for monitoring the field as a robot scout continually assessed the soil.

Also, Hannover Messe was able to demonstrate how a farm in the future could utilize a fleet of robots working together to automate various processes. The Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms (MARS) project illustrated how more compact robots could be used to avoid soil compaction and provide non-stop operation.

In Japan, an indoor, stacked automated vegetable factory was developed which was able to function independent of climate or rainfall, all the while limiting the amount of physical space required for food production.

It is clear at this stage that the use of robotics within the agricultural industry can help address pressing problems around skills shortages, monitoring and efficiency. Some technological developments are still needed before this level of automation can be applied to more delicate crops, but the Internet of Living Things is close to being a tangible and practicable reality with the potential to revolutionize farming and agriculture.

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