Technology meets Agriculture: How Ag is evolving

Since humans began practicing agriculture thousands of years ago, technology has consistently changed the way society has farmed. From rough hand tools in the BC era, to the cotton gin in 1793 and McCormick’s reaper in 1831, technological advances have made it possible for humans to grow and produce crops much more effectively. 

It can be difficult to discern at times, but technological improvements are still advancing agriculture across the world today. The next ten years are promising to bring incredible advancements to farmers, and we are going to cover some of the most significant ways technology will change the way we farm.

What does it mean to advance?

Farming may sound straightforward. You plant a seed, water it, harvest, and sell. There are air-conditioned combines with Sirius-XM radio and irrigation systems that make rainfall largely irrelevant. What else could be needed?

Let’s take a moment to break agriculture down into some of it’s moving parts. As it turns out, when we peel the onion back a couple of layers (had to do it), it’s actually incredibly complicated. 

The average farm size in the US in 2019 was 444 acres, per the US Department of Agriculture, and over 70% of the total farms had less than $100,000 in sales. This likely means that most of the farms in the US have the bulk of operations managed by one person. For one person or even a small team, the list of roles and responsibilities can be quite exhaustive.

Peeling the onion back

Let’s start with planting. The most common nutrients needed for plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen and potassium. Before a farmer plants, the soil must be sampled and properly fertilized. Farmers must have a working knowledge of these elements and what a specific plant species may require.

After planting, the crops must be monitored. Depending on the crop, location, and climate they can be subject to diseases caused by various insects or pathogens such as fungi or bacteria. Lack of a specific nutrient in the soil can cause growth to stall. Animals can also destroy crops and reduce yield. Farmers have to constantly monitor the crops and know what symptoms to watch for in order to prescribe a solution. This can be both time consuming and costly.

What about equipment? While the specific equipment varies depending on what is planted, one thing remains true. Modern farm equipment is incredibly expensive. Farmers have to be able to gauge the equipment need based on the size of the operation they have. In addition to already being chemists and botanists, knowledge of accounting and finance is required here as well.

Farmers have to be able to map out future cash flow projections when considering equipment options. For new equipment, depreciation is tracked heavily in the financial statement to help ease tax burdens. For many farmers, used equipment may be the only viable option, so they must also be able to resolve any mechanical issues that may arise. 

There’s more

All of this, and the plants are still not even out of the ground. In most places, farmers at least have a couple of different options in what crops to grow. Therefore, when choosing where to invest an entire growing season, it’s important to have an understanding of the market. Farmers have to stay connected with international trade, tariffs, and global supply and demand to understand what prices may do. 

In addition, it’s often essential for farm owners to be fluent in the more complex financial products, such as insurance and derivatives. In some cases, farmers will insure part or all of their crop or livestock to manage risk and protect against disaster. Larger operations may even engage in futures contracts on commodities to help hedge the risk of drastic price changes.

There is a point for explaining all of this. In order to truly understand all of the avenues that technology can have an impact, it helps to first break down the art itself. Agriculture has a ton of moving parts, and over the next ten years technology is set to bring sweeping changes.

Autonomous driving? Ag had it first

We hear all the buzz about autonomous vehicles on the roadways. As 5G is rolled out across the globe over the next few years we will begin to see this. But, what many may not know is that this has already been introduced for agriculture. 

Autonomous tractors use much of the same technology that autonomous cars use. It begins with GPS to assess location, and leverages built-in sensors to avoid objects. Without the added complexity of other drivers on the road, this technology is already fairly stable and is largely available today in agriculture.

However, as 5G continues to be rolled out we will see this technology improve. With the ability to collect and transmit more information to the cloud, vehicles will become smarter and have the ability to report additional insights and metrics on the ground it’s covering. We’ve barely scratched the surface on what will be available here.

Agriculture and the Internet of Things

There are so many use-cases and opportunities here, so let’s first break down the meaning of the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT refers to the new wave of connected devices that we are starting to see throughout our homes. Smart refrigerators that can order new groceries or send tweets, cameras that allow you to view your pets from your smartphone, and thermostats that can sync to your calendar. Most people are familiar with at least one example by now.

But with IoT thus far, there’s been one limitation that has effectively confined the uses for this tech. That holdup is the internet, or more precisely, the lack thereof. To truly get the connectivity and reap the benefits of these tools, they have to be connected to some form of internet or cellular service. This has largely confined the devices (and the market for the devices) to be tethered to a structure or area with a WiFi connection. 

Over the next ten years, we will see a drastic increase in the number and variety of devices that enter the market. The primary driver for this? Enhanced cellular and internet technology such as 5G. With the emergence of 5G, for the first time ever we will have high-bandwidth connection abilities, even in rural areas. This will bring connectivity without the need for a WiFi connection, which will enable low-power devices to transmit data even without a power cord. Companies have already begun on this tech and are rolling out new devices as we speak, so let’s take a look at what is coming.

Crops protruding from soil

Monitoring made simple with IoT

Enhanced IoT is coming for agriculture in all shapes and sizes. One of the technologies making the largest impact happens to be one of the smallest physical devices: sensors. These are small devices built to gauge and transmit a specific level or indicator for tracking.

Sensors are already being implemented across farms to help monitor various parts. Moisture sensitivity sensors are being placed in the soil to provide a more accurate reading of moisture level. This then opens the door for efficient, automated irrigation. Fuel tank and equipment sensors are helping to determine when preventative maintenance is needed or a fuel shipment is required. There are also livestock monitoring systems that track temperature on the animal as well as water levels and GPS positioning. 

These sensors then are linked to other IoT devices that can act on the information provided. For example, smart irrigation systems can determine which range of sensors reported a lower moisture level. Once the area is determined, it can send a stream of water to that specific region of the field. This can serve to save water while also increasing plant cultivation.

And this is just some of what is already available. As these technologies improve, we will have better tracking on specific chemical imbalances in the soil or plants, oxygen flow, vital functions for animals, and pest control. 

All of this is made available today via technologies such as Bluetooth, LoRaWAN and existing cellular service. As 5G is rolled out, we will see increased connection and deployment abilities as there will be a reduced need for these to be located near a central “hub”. Rather, all communication can be transmitted directly to an application for processing and analytical analysis.

Aerial imaging improvements

Drones are here, and they are proving to be quite useful for a variety of applications. One of these is through aerial photography. Farmers, real estate agents, surveyors and plenty of other disciplines are using drones to capture shots of land from the sky. One constraint with this, however, is the need for a human operator. 

Autonomous drones are already being introduced and implemented today. These drones are able to deploy on scheduled missions to capture and transmit data before returning to the dock. Without the need for human intervention, these drones can begin to help immensely by capturing enough shots for an effective time lapse progression. 

Now, farmers will be able to view the aerial footage of their crops on a daily (or even intra-day) basis. This means better monitoring of pests and diseases, as well as the ability to pool these pictures and use for AI-based modeling. For example, a cloud service that gathers thousands of daily photos of soybean fields will be able to leverage machine learning / AI to identify diseases and signs of nutrient deficiencies. This will lead to much earlier indicators that a crop may be in trouble. In addition, it will save time and fuel costs as it will reduce the need for a farmer to continuously drive around and monitor crops.

Over the next ten years we will see this technology become cheaper and more effective as it matures. With the continuous enhancement of solar power we will also see this become almost fully automated, as a drone will be able to operate solely off of the power from a solar panel, deploy on scheduled tasks set up through an application, and automatically transmit findings. This will all be able to be monitored through a smartphone. 

Drone with camera

Solar power

You can’t write about the cross-section of tech and agriculture without mentioning solar power. There are a couple of applications that, combined with some of the other advancements covered, could prove to be extremely useful. 

We now are aware of the sensors, autonomous vehicles, and new cellular technology that makes some of this possible. With the addition of maneuverable solar paneling that essentially allows power anywhere the sun shines, we will now be able to see even further enhancements. 

Solar power will enable some of the tech that does require a power connection to be automated. Take feeding troughs or irrigation spigots for example. When a sensor sends a signal indicating that levels are low, or a scheduled job is set to run, a solar panel in an otherwise hard-to-reach area could enable motorized gadgets to run and help maintain appropriate levels. 

These are simple use-cases, but farmers are a creative bunch. The concept of remote power mixed with cloud-based computing is important, and we will likely see a variety of applications introduced for this in the next few years.

Smart greenhouses

Precision agriculture takes an entirely new meaning when greenhousing is introduced. Think of the same technology we’ve mentioned. Smart irrigation systems connected to soil sensors that can accurately assess when to water. Cameras that can watch plant growth and analyze image data to understand what cycles are normal. The added benefit of greenhousing? You can control even more variables.

With greenhousing we will start to see the most autonomous version of agriculture we have seen thus far. With the ability to monitor plants in a controlled environment as well as controlling for temperature, humidity and UV light, smart greenhouses allow incredibly precise cultivation. 

These greenhouses are already in implementation. But, as the technology matures we will likely see rapid expansion of these. This is primarily due to the fact the overall start-up costs will be lower. Smart greenhouses will likely even begin to appear on rooftops and in backyards. 

Final Thoughts

There are so many moving parts in agriculture. Until recently, the lack of connectivity and efficient power placement have made the industry suffer in the realm of technical innovation. 

However, a new era of agriculture is beginning to emerge. Advanced technologies like autonomous driving/flying, artificial intelligence and IoT sensors, paired with enhanced connectivity and power generation, are going to completely change the way we farm.

Agriculture will be an extremely exciting industry to watch and invest in over the next ten years.