As this year’s harvest continues under difficult conditions, can connected technology provide farmers with the precision and productivity that is needed to overcome the impact of COVID-19?
What do you picture when you hear the word ‘farm’? For many of us, our perception of agriculture is shaped by our early – and often only – exposure to local farming as a child. A school trip or a family day out that involved donning wellies and feeding animals. And while these experiences certainly have their place, acting as important, first-hand introductions to the concept of agricultural production, they have also likely contributed to a general misperception of the industry as quaint, idyllic or antiquated.
And though we tend to develop a broader understanding over time that agricultural workers are required to work hard, there is perhaps less of a realisation of how they can also work smart. Fortunately, as digital advancements begin to take root across the industry, greater attention is being given to this side of farming. For example, 2017 saw extensive media coverage of a successful harvest from the world’s first robotically tended farm, complete with drones, automated machinery and live-stream monitoring.
And for good reason too. The digitalisation of agriculture isn’t just a PR play. Like all meaningful developments in society, it’s a smart solution to a pressing problem. The problem being demand growth and labour shortage amidst increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather conditions. With COVID-19 only serving to amplify these issues by further upturning supply chains and imposing restrictions throughout society – from restaurant closures to global trade shortfalls – that have impacted the sector immeasurably. But, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s time to take the bull by the horns.
Big Data, Big Impact
Driving this technological advancement is the proliferation of data. Data-driven farming has the potential to reconfigure the entire industry by improving productivity, reducing costs and helping to manage supply chains. By leveraging Big Data, farmers are able to use real-time insights – on anything from rainfall patterns to fertiliser requirements – to inform their decision-making process, while removing any sense of guesswork from their operations. And with the average farmer making around 140 decisions per crop and soil type during a growing season, the potential impact this can have is huge.
But advanced data can take decision-making one step further. If a farmer has access to the right type and amount of data, it can enable their decisions to become wholly proactive rather than reactive. With the natural environment a key challenge for the industry, data analytics can equip farmers with the tools needed to navigate unpredictable conditions that require anything from enhanced pest control to stricter resource management. All in the name of protecting crop yield.
However, these predictive capabilities aren’t limited to just crops, but extend to a farmer’s equipment fleet too. From tractors to combines, equipment is the beating heart of any agricultural operation and without its full, efficient output, margins can quickly be eaten away at. Predictive maintenance – through the use of sensors and other measurement tools – works to identify potential equipment issues before they can become critical. And this can be a difference maker, especially in light of the already limiting financial conditions brought upon by the global pandemic.
Better Connected, More Effective
While data-driven analytics and the predictive maintenance it enables can help to level up agricultural output, this outcome is reliant on the farm in question being a digitally connected environment. While we’ve become increasingly familiar with the concept of connected devices in many parts of our lives, with the Internet of Things (IoT) slipping more comfortably into common vernacular, agriculture is just beginning to reap the benefits of the ‘connected revolution’.
At the forefront of this charge are connected tractors, which are now able to digitally communicate with their environment; fed by high-speed cameras, thermal imaging and GPS, they can ascertain where and when their action is required. In doing so, vehicles take on autonomous functionality, exhibiting precision not previously possible by human intervention alone, while also attaining the ability to adjust behaviour based on the performance of previous equipment or past conditions, thanks to machine learning enabled by artificial intelligence.
This is exciting and important in equal measure. Not only does it herald another significant step towards the farm of the future, it can also help us to tackle the challenges of today. Most notable among these is providing nutritious food in a sustainable manner for the almost 8 billion people on the planet, with the long-term awareness that this figure is projected to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030. And there are short-term benefits too. As we continue to grapple with social distancing and limited workforces, connected, autonomous equipment removes the need for in-person monitoring, with remote programming enabling incredibly precise seeding depth and spacing among other on-site imperatives.
A Farming Futurescape
But where do we go from here? Excitingly, we only seem to be at the beginning of the digitalisation journey, with the one good thing to come from COVID-19 being the acceleration of this process. Necessity truly is the mother of invention it seems, as we’ve witnessed an uptick in interest surrounding connected equipment throughout this period, as well as the emergence of novel ways of working around limitations, such as remote training and virtual maintenance.
Evidently, the farm of the future is already beginning to take shape. However, we still expect to see our fair share of advancements over the coming years as present issues take on greater significance, the foremost being sustainability. With renewable energy a critical part of this equation, there will likely be a swifter move towards field electrification, as electric components replace hydraulic or mechanical ones, with robotics a particular area of growth. Though cost and capability pose limitations currently, the pace of advancement seen in other industries will soon translate to our own, bringing enhanced precision, self-sufficiency and green credentials.
While we all hope to soon see the back of COVID-19, it’s at least heartening that technological advancements are promising to strengthen the health of the industry and protect the wellbeing of its future operations. And though agriculture has a historical reputation for hard work over digital ingenuity, the continued integration of connectivity will help to generate an added appreciation of the industry’s talent for introducing smart solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.
About the Author
Prof. Dr. Peter Pickel is Deputy Director of the John Deere European Technology Innovation Centre. He is an expert in future technologies and teaches as honorary professor at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern.