The farming industry is an essential part of the country, and for other nations, in making sure the world is fed. Without our farmers and the food they produce, we as a society would be in a lot of trouble. One challenge the industry faces, though, comes with innovation. Most of the breakthroughs tend to be in equipment that keeps getting bigger and bigger, many of these bigger than some one bedroom apartments! Maintenance on these gigantic creations are full-time careers in themselves, And you might think as we are all about The Big Idea on Fridays that bigger is better, but this go-round we are going small. Microprocessors. Tiny transistors. Robotics that are precise, lightweight, and compact.
First, let’s mention the first robotic farm which has just completed its first automonous harvest. It’s called the Hands Free Hectare Project, an experimental farm run by researchers from Harper Adams University of Edgmond, U.K. Their first harvest was 5 Tons of Spring barley and the entire crop was sowed, cultivated, and reaped robotically. Everything from start to finish – the sowing, the fertilizing, collecting samples and harvesting – was carried out by autonomous vehicles on the farm.
The team behind Hands Free Hectare believes this robotic technology will improve yields in agriculture all while reducing costs. They implemented open-source software and integrated regular-type commercial equipment, except for smaller units outfitted with servos designed to run autonomously. In a clever twist, Hands Free Hectare applied hobbyist drones like my own DJI drone, in order to map from the air where they needed to put fertilizer or water. The aim of Hands Free Hectare is to have farmers employ these automonous devices instead of giant tractors which may lead to lower costs and faster turn-around for the farmers.
This Hands Free Hactare Project is not the only promise of technology on the farm. John Deere, one of the leading manufacturers of agricultural equipment, just announced its plans to purchase the Blue River Technology robotics firm. Brue River’s portfolio includes high-tech agricultural spraying equipment called “See & Spray.” See & Spray enables farmers to reduce the use of herbicides through sensors that only spray where weeds are present. Once the sensor detects what farmers define as a weed, it directs pesticides specifically at that weed, using half as much herbicide in the end. Similar to the same sort of machine learning seen in dictation software and the like, artificially intelligent tools learn to identify weeds as well as assist farmers in managing crops and assessing needs. They do this through mounted cameras on crop sprayers that run a deep learning algorithm to identify various types of greenery, learning by “sight” which plants require fertilizer (crop) and which need herbicide (weeds).
It’s not that John Deere is completely new to A.I. in agriculture. Deere has been working on autonomous tractors for two decades, although they have never reached the same level of success as Google and Tesla have enjoyed. For being a name in the industry, Deere finds themselves falling woefully behind, so the only way to gain ground in the game is to buy into it. Even Deere’s most advanced vehicles, which use the proprietary AutoTrac guidance system, can only assist with navigation. They still require a human in the cab. You would think that autonomous driving would be easy in farming, only having to miss fences. Still, Deere has not been able to do that yet, but buying into Blue River Deere is hoping will accelerate development in autonomous operations.
I think the agricultural business is going to embrace this seeing as they are struggling with labor costs. Autonomous farm equipment will substantially reduce these costs, but the trade-off will be with equipment costs going up. Innovation rarely, if ever, comes free. Breaking even will happen out of the gate, but with the long game will profits start to happen. It’s the eternal tug-of-war of any business, but I do think we have a promising future ahead in agriculture.
A research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratford University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.