The agriculture industry has come a long way in the last hundred years. Gone are the days of working from sunup to sundown, planting, weeding and harvesting all your crops by hand.
The advent of machinery made it possible for farmers to plant and harvest large swaths of land, which wouldn't have been possible just a few decades before.
Now automation is set to change the agriculture industry again. How is automation increasing efficiency in the agriculture sector?
Using traditional farming techniques, seeding acres of farmland could take days or weeks, depending on the crop. Farmers plowed the ground by hand or with animal-driven plows, then sowed each seed manually.
Now, with advances in agricultural automation, farmers may find themselves completely out of the loop.
The Case IH Autonomous Concept Vehicle was the star of the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Iowa. This self-driving tractor can move from its parking space to the field and back without a driver, and can also carry out various farm tasks, including seeding, without any interference from a human. Users can also control this tractor remotely via tablet, but it's not necessary.
If you're not relying on rainwater to irrigate your crops, irrigation is a necessary part of the agriculture industry. Without automation, watering the crops comes down to guesswork, and if you skip a day or two, the effects could be disastrous.
Automating your irrigation can be as straightforward as using timers, sensors or computers to control when and where a field gets watered. Pairing the system with moisture sensors in the soil can prevent you from over-watering the crops and potentially damaging the roots.
Weeding, fertilizing and using pesticides or herbicides are all parts of crop maintenance that used to be manual. Trying to apply fertilizer or other chemicals to an entire field could take days, and by the time you reached the end, it was time to start again at the other end of the farm.
Today, new advances in automation have streamlined the process of crop maintenance. One such robot, called Bonirob, can navigate through the field autonomously, thanks to GPS, video cameras and LiDAR.
Researchers are teaching it to automatically identify weeds before removing them. Eventually, robots like Bonirob could replace human workers entirely, at least when it comes to weeding and other crop maintenance.
Finally, at the end of the season, it's time to harvest the hard-earned crops. Even with machinery, and the crew to run it, harvesting an industrial-sized farm can take days — and that's assuming there are enough people on hand to make the effort successful.
Automation is helping to make the job of harvesting a crop more straightforward by reducing the need for a human crew.
One example is the harvesting of nuts, where farmers would traditionally use tractor-mounted “tree shakers” that would vibrate the nuts free from the trees, so nut harvesters can pick them up from the ground and separate them from dirt and pebbles.
Today, self-propelled tree shakers are the most popular option. Automation may, in the future, remove the need for human operators, allowing these devices to operate autonomously.
Unmanned aerial drones might seem like toys or tools for photographers, but they're starting to prove their worth in the agriculture industry.
These autonomous robots can monitor crops, taking pictures, thermal imagery or more depending on their equipment. With agricultural consumption expected to increase by 70% by 2050, farmers will need every advantage they can get to keep the world fed.
As drone technology continues to advance, these devices will start to adopt more responsibilities, from seeding and weeding to taking soil samples for analysis. There are some limitations to our technology, but with as far as we've come in the last two decades, the future is looking bright.
The Internet of Things is a broad term for networked devices capable of sending and receiving information. IoT sensors in agriculture can collect data about everything from cattle health to crop growth to soil nutrients, and transmit that data back to a central hub for collation into useful data points.
Having all this information at your fingertips lowers production risk and makes it easier to succeed as a farmer, in spite of the ever-changing state of the industry.
The Future of Agriculture
Unless the global infrastructure collapses, we won't be relying on human-powered tools or manually operated equipment for much longer. Automation is set to change the entire agricultural industry from the ground up — literally in some cases.
It's exciting to contemplate how far we've come, and what advances will continue to revolutionize farming in the years ahead.
Written by Megan R, Nichols
STEM Writer and Freelance Blogger