With increasing urbanization, labour shortages, a rising global population, and the need to feed billions, farming is embracing technologies making it more sustainable, more cost-effective, less wasteful, safer – and kinder to our planet.
When we think of farming, images of sunny skies, rolling fields, and heavy machinery come to mind. While these massive pieces of equipment are vital for operations, they are fast being joined by compact and efficient high-tech devices like drones and robots as farming moves into the future.
Successful farming has always been about more than simply planting crops and keeping one’s fingers crossed for the right combination of rain, sun and a successful harvest. Years of experience farming the land helps – combined with a breadth of knowledge that includes science, mathematics, biology, soil health, time management, chemistry, and water usage.
And another of the many factors contributing to high yields is an intimate understanding not only of what type of crops to plant, but the best time of day to do it, necessary soil conditions, the effect of temperatures, and the right amount of rainfall and sunlight.
Today’s farmers rely on a combination of instinct, observation, technology and tradition to forecast the weather. And, in continuous publication now for over 200 years, the venerable Farmer’s Almanac remains the Bible for farmers and home gardeners alike. Containing 16 months’ worth of weather information, the distinctive yellow-jacketed book includes stories on the latest trends, astrology, astronomy, pets, romance, and of course, weather information.
Offering much more than ‘expect high temperatures’ or ‘rainy conditions’ predictions, the Almanac breaks-down maps and forecasts of 18 regions, from the Atlantic Corridor to the Lower Lakes, and Alaska to Hawaii. From temperature and snowy periods to warmth, rain, dry spells and more, weather information is predicted on a month-by-month basis.
One of the greatest drivers toward more efficient and high-yield farming is our growing global population. The number of humans on earth is predicted to increase by two billion persons to 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations. And with more people and longer life expectancies comes the necessity for more food.
To keep up with the increase, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports farmers must drastically step up food production to 70 percent higher than 2007 levels. With developing countries such as China requiring more protein, production of meat, including beef, chicken, and pork, will also need to increase, along with more grains and legumes.
To help meet global demand, technology is needed. Many dairy farmers, for example, already use a robotic milking system (RMS). Although an RMS is costly – averaging $150,000 to $200,000 per robot, which will milk 50 to 70 cows – the payoff over time is in the reduced need for human labour.
From construction to roof inspection and mining to the military, one of the greatest technological innovations in decades is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.
Capable of flying for significant periods of time at different elevations, drones are revolutionizing farming. Able to do everything from monitoring livestock to mapping thousands of acres for crop health, drones are efficient time-savers making farming less labour-intensive, cheaper, and more profitable.
Instead of driving out to fields miles away, fixed-wing or multi-rotor agricultural drones are sent to perform inspections in real time. Costs for ready-to-fly drones vary from about $1,500 to over $25,000, and for farmers unwilling or unable to purchase them or secure a remote pilot certificate, third-party companies are available to perform the work.
Depending on the drone, devices can be outfitted with cameras, thermal / infrared, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), and even technology to measure multispectral and hyperspectral data.
Serving as everything from electronic watchdog to crop inspector, drones offer farmers one of the greatest advantages of all – the ability to see a bird’s-eye view of their fields in real time, and the ability to spot issues like drought before they cause devastation.
Known as precision agriculture and precision farming, drones enable farmers to spray crops with pinpoint accuracy. The result is better management of water to prevent crop-destroying flooding and disease, enhanced pest control, and maximizing fertilizer usage to increase yields and profits.
Drones specifically designed and manufactured for agriculture have advantages over general-purpose machines. Although they represent a significant investment, agricultural drones are purpose-made, meaning some are for spraying pesticides and herbicides, like the futuristic-looking AGRAS MG-1S octocopter, while others such as the Delair UX11 Ag are sleek and sophisticated mapping drones.
At just 3.52 pounds (1.6 kg), the Delair has an impressive flying range of 29.2 miles (47 km), a cruise speed of 33.5 miles per hour (54 km/h), and the ability to operate in temperatures of -4 F to 110 F (-20 C to 45 C).
Described by the company as “The smartest plant mapping drone ever,” the Delair’s integrated multispectral camera, fully integrated Micasense RedEdge MX sensor, and sophisticated software make it easy to map and analyze plants and plant height, check fields, rows, sampling points and more.
A forecast from Global Market Insights predicts the agricultural drones market will exceed $1 billion by 2024, offering breakthrough technology, less dependence on skilled farmhands, and the draw of government incentives.
Developing over the past 30 years, precision farming techniques are helping farmers to produce food that is more sustainable than before.
In her 2019 book Precision Agriculture: The Future of Farming, Annie Bobby Zachariah writes: “This new paradigm of farming is known as precision agriculture or site-specific farming. The challenge of how we will feed the exploding world population in the future in a sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally amicable way is seeding an agricultural revolution. The future of farming should be smart to address these issues and increase the quality and quantity of agricultural production also by using sensing technology to make farms more ‘intelligent’ and more connected.”
In the coming years, farming will move from an agrarian pursuit requiring human and animal muscle to a high-tech industry with drones and robots doing much of the work.
Less than a century ago, many farmers in North America were still using horses, mules, and bullocks to pull plows, which gave way to combustion engines and giant machines; if those old farmers had even a glimpse of the innovations of today, they would be stopped dead in their furrows.
Even heavy-duty farm equipment is vastly different from what it was just a few years ago. With stereo systems, GPS and air conditioning, the cabs of today’s tractors boast the luxury of a high-end sedan.
For humanity, the benefits of new technology in farming are endless. Through precision agriculture, drones carrying fertilizer or pesticides spray far more accurately than a tractor, and workers are no longer exposed to dangerous chemicals.
While contactless farming seems like a contradiction, it is already in the works.
Beginning with just a single hectare, the ‘HandsFree Hectare’ project has expanded to a 35-hectare farm. Located in Shropshire, England, this initiative of Harper Adams University started growing spring barley through an autonomous tractor outfitted with GPS, a precision drill, sprayer, and laser scanners – without humans actually entering the field.
HandsFree Hectare describes it as, “Automated machines growing the first arable crop remotely, without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground.”
In Denmark, too, where farmland is scarce, crop yields have increased about one-third through precision farming and driverless robotic weed control, which benefits the environment and saves resources. Going beyond the field, temperature and humidity-controlled silos are being used to protect stored grain, keeping it safe from insects.
Other technology benefiting farmers is in the works, including high-throughput plant phenotyping (HTPP). A type of precision farming using multiple sensors and robotics to measure plant height, the number of leaves, shape, colour, and more, HTPP helps determine phenotypic traits and improve plant genetics and pest control.
As our global population grows and available land shrinks, farming will keep shifting toward high-tech tools to optimize crop yields, reduce weeds and plant-killing insects, reduce wasteful water use, and ensure nutrients are returned to the soil, where they belong.