Tech Trend #3 Autonomous Devices: Agriculture Needs Techies

Jun 18 2019

Scott Shadley

Tech trends of 2019 all point to data management and digital transformation as hot topics. Autonomous Devices is #3 on the list and refer to devices that are aware of their surroundings and make decisions based on the data environment. This is real-time data analytics in action! From self-driving cars to smart thermostats, and advanced robotics to customized farming practices.

The first fully autonomous farm equipment is becoming commercially available in Canada and Australia. One Australian farmer replaced a 120-foot wide, 16-ton spraying machine with four small robots that were more deliberate in applying chemicals to kill weeds, saving 80% of his prior chemical costs. And, given his proximity to the rivers that run directly to the Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast, the environmental benefits are obvious.

Head of John Deere Labs, Alex Purdy, believes this approach shows a lack of understanding of the role of farmers. He says farms don’t just steer tractors and technology does not replace people. His focus is on automation for tasks not equipment. Purdy believes AI, deep learning, and advances in computer vision will transform the machinery further. Machinery that uses automation for tasks right now is more beneficial to farmers than autonomous equipment, Purdy believes. The ability for machinery to sense and perceive provide the most challenging area for farming autonomous machine advances.

Taking a completely different approach, Iron Ox, a Californian robotics company, has an autonomous indoor farm, that allows for harvesting, seeding, and plant inspections thousands of times each day. Using machine learning and computer vision, robots address the needs of individual plants at a sub millimeter scale. The company claims that it can grow 30 times more produce per acre than traditional farms, leveraging both sun and LED lighting, coupled with a hydroponic growing system to use a tenth of the water required in traditional farming. Their plant science team operates behind the scenes to ensure plant health, crop growth and food safety.

Because of the data analytics involved, there is a huge gap in the job market for technology experts in agriculture. The disconnect in farming and traditional practices versus autonomous machinery and planting automation is resulting in a gap in expertise. According to a USDA report, if farms and producers had the digital technologies and expertise needed, the United States could boost economic benefits by nearly 18% of total agriculture products, a $47-65B annual gross economic benefit.

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