Image credit: Bear Flag Robotics
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin may have been the first machine to revolutionize agriculture in 1793, but today’s technical advancements have turned rough-hewn plantations into futuristic farms, complete with autonomous robots and camera-equipped drones.
The global market for robotics in agriculture is expected to exceed $20 billion by 2025, largely driven by precision agriculture, which employs technology to ensure proper plant and soil conditions. Traditional suppliers, such as John Deere, have been adding sensors to their equipment to enable more precision farming. Technology has been added to farm implements, enabling combines to adjust on the fly to changing harvest conditions, for example.
Sensors Drive Farming
Newcomer Bear Flag Robotics has integrated IoT sensors, cameras, computer vision, and other artificial intelligence into its autonomous tractors. Bear Flag tractors can be driven or operated remotely from a “Mission Control” center, where one person can manage a fleet of machines.
Remote operators have access to all tractor-related information, from equipment condition to planting information. Real-time telemetry provides a 360-degree video feed, giving operators situational awareness. The software can detect objects in the field, schedule jobs, and plan routes using perception sensors and robotic actuators. The smaller tractors reduce soil compaction, and remote control capabilities cut labor costs, so farmers can increase profits.
On a smaller scale is the Rowbot, developed by startup Rowbot Systems. The autonomous robot fits between two rows of crops and can spray fertilizer or seed multiple rows as it travels at speeds of 3.5 mph. On-board sensors allow the Rowbot to continuously adjust its position between the rows. At the end of the row, it can turn and enter a new row using integrated real-time kinematic (RTK) and GPS capabilities. Eventually, the Rowbot will be able to map plantings in the field on the fly.
An industrial weed killer is aiding organic farmers. Salinas, CA-based FarmWise provides pesticide-free weeding services to farms. Its Titan FT-35 driverless tractor uses machine learning and computer vision to identify weeds among crops such as leafy greens, cauliflower, and broccoli. The tractor then extends a robotic arm to within 1 cm of the weed to pull it.
The giant vehicle searches for the center of each plant, using millions of images and perception algorithms to develop plant-detection models. FarmWise claims future iterations will allow its robots to monitor individual plant health and intervene accordingly. That saves money on pesticides, eliminates harmful chemical runoff, and brings a new level of chemical-free farming to organic operations.
A Bird’s Eye View
Not all agricultural advancements are down in the dirt, as drones are now making their mark. The market for drones in agriculture is projected to reach $5.7 billion by 2025, although supply chain issues resulting from COVID-19 might hamper growth projections.
Largely used for field mapping, drones allow growers to view the condition and health of their crops across the entire farm. Drones are also used to monitor livestock and could be equipped to herd animals from above.
Iowa City-based Rantizo uses drones to apply cover seed, pesticides, and fertilizers. The company combines a drone with autonomous hardware and proprietary software to give farmers a clear picture of their land. With aerial imagery, farmers can hone in on problem areas and avoid over spraying, saving money and reducing pesticide resistance.
Image credit: Rantizo
The use of technology on farms will continue to increase, as it addresses some of the biggest challenges farmers face: labor and weather. Autonomous tractors reduce the number of drivers needed, and they can operate around the clock. Drones can fly even after heavy rains because they won’t damage the land or crops like heavy rigs can.