While agriculture has been described as the least digitized of all major industries, farmers around the world are now adopting digital technologies at a dizzying pace, thanks to the value they bring, and with the potential to boost yield levels as much as 70% by 2050. Here are four digital technologies that are changing the face of modern farming.
IoT and Sensors
Welcome to the sensor-equipped IoT farm, where, these days, it isn’t just the produce that gets harvested. Thanks to sensors in the field and attached to modern farm machinery, an explosion of data can be mined to help optimize operations. Most modern farm machinery is now equipped with data-logging sensors and GPS equipment. Sensors can provide information such as yield mapping and harvest documentation, as well as recommending maintenance service scheduling.
In the field, agricultural weather stations are placed at various locations. They combine several sensors to capture a host of information at predetermined intervals, including air and soil temperature, rainfall, leaf wetness, wind direction, relative humidity, solar radiation and more.
Other sensors, you ask? Optical sensors, placed on vehicles, drones or satellites, measure different frequencies of light reflectance. They aggregate and process variables such as soil reflectance and plant color data. Electrochemical sensors measure pH and soil nutrient levels. Other measurement devices record and communicate information about soil moisture, soil compaction and soil airflow permeability.
Things are looking up for the agricultural drone market, which is expected to exceed $4.2 billion by 2020, up from $864 million in 2016. Drones can perform a variety of tasks, ranging from soil and field analysis, to seeding to crop monitoring. The largest driver of market growth for drones, however, is aerial spraying. The increasing adoption of drones for crop spraying application can increase yield and reduce crop loss while lessening usage of fertilizers and pesticides.
Watch for the development of agricultural drones with increasingly sophisticated sensors and cameras which will improve the quality of the data collected. Drones are also expected to become more highly automated, reducing the need for operator training.
Agricultural robotics is another fast growing farm technology sector, expected to reach $12.8 billion by 2022–up from $2.75 billion in 2016. From autonomous tractors to robotic arms to drones, agricultural robots are helping farmers to achieve higher and faster yields.
Robotics applications are often required to perform in harsh environments. For example, a robotic system for picking sweet peppers requires a vision system that performs in dusty conditions, varying light levels and with wind movement. It also requires a robotic arm which has to operate in those same conditions to gently clasp and place a pepper without damaging it.
Harvesting and picking are two of the most popular tasks for robots on farms. Other labor-intensive tasks they are now shouldering include weed control, autonomous mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying and thinning, as well as sorting and packing.
Data Analytics/Precision Agriculture
Thanks in part to the sensors and drones mentioned above, as well as other sources of external data, the farming industry is undergoing a transformation. It is using data to inform smarter farming decisions. That information, combined with sophisticated computer algorithms, provides the basis for precision agriculture, allowing farmers to respond more proactively to to inter and intra-field variability in conditions and crops. According to Goldman Sachs, precision agriculture has the potential to increase current yield levels as much as 70% by 2050.
Those branches of precision agriculture and their opportunity for yield increase include:
Precision fertilizer application (18% yield increase)
Precision planting (13% increase)
Reduced soil compaction resulting from the use of smaller, autonomous tractors (13% increase)
Precision irrigation (10% increase)
Precision spraying (4% increase)
Agriculture is rapidly emerging as a technology bright spot, one with the potential to deliver the yield increases necessary to feed a rapidly growing world population and to improve supply chain performance in the process. Higher yields and more accurate forecasting at the farm provide the opportunity to improve logistics execution, reduce costs and lessen food waste. The emerging agtech sector will be crucial to the development of an increasingly optimized fresh supply chain.