Agriculture 4.0: Farmers embrace drones, AI and IoT

Since the first farmers figured out how to grow crops from seeds, agriculture has stayed at the cutting-edge of technology adoption. This remains the case today as farmers embrace drones, robots and connected cattle.

The rapidly growing field of agricultural machine intelligence and imaging was discussed in our on-demand webinar with farmer, Sébastien Windsor, President of Agriculture Chamber (Seine Maritime, France) and Alain Berry, Director of Business Development, Copernicus/sobloo, Orange.

Copernicus is a European Union initiative to provide free and open access to near-real-time data, models and forecasts about our planet using a family of dedicated satellites coupled with in-situ observations. sobloo supports the Copernicus program by making data freely available to all potential users through a cloud computing architecture with support of a consortium led by Orange Business, Cap Gemini and Airbus.

One of the major applications for this data is in the field of smart agriculture, where it can help boost yields and food safety, mitigate disease and enable governments to predict food shortages.

Why it matters

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts the global population will grow by 34 percent, reaching 9.1 billion by 2050. To feed all these hungry mouths, farmers must adopt new precision agricultural processes to help them to sustainably generate more food, more efficiently.

Government and the food industry are seeking solutions to improve food supply management and make more accurate predictions around yield, demand and distribution.

Machina Research predicts that almost 225 million IoT agricultural devices will ship worldwide by 2024. The average farm is expected to produce up to 4.1 million data points daily by 2050.

Tracking technologies

Take GPS trackers; they help farmers track herds and farm equipment, but they become even more useful with AI.

"Cows can already be connected with solutions similar to those in smartphones that analyze how much the cow is moving. We can analyze how much it is grazing, its temperature and so on. With all this information, we have a good chance of predicting some diseases early."

Sébastien Windsor, President of Agriculture Chamber

This helps the farmer act fast and may reduce use of antibiotics in the food supply chain, he argues. Connected IoT systems can also monitor pregnant cattle, providing farmers with SMS messages to warn them if the cow goes into labor or suffers a prenatal problem.

Eyes in the skies

Satellite cameras and AI can detect visible and near-infrared wavelengths of light as they are reflected from the earth. This provides insights into crop conditions that you just don't get with the naked eye.

Farmers can compare current results with historical data and apply associated data sets to help them make better decisions. Sensors, drones, satellite images and meteorological data can all be combined to make an ecosystem of information to improve farming practices. This can help boost and estimate yield and help mitigate disease.

The sobloo marketplace combines satellite data and imagery with ground, temperature and climate data. This helps farmers and the food industry with the insights they need to estimate crop yields before harvesting takes place. Governments can use this data to help them prepare for shortages.

According to Alain Berry, "You can get more information, too: what kind of irrigation and nutrients are added to a field, which makes these systems very useful for precision farming."

More sustainable farming practices

It's widely understood that the food industry must reduce its reliance on antibiotics, as over-use means these miracle-healing agents are becoming less effective.

"Many of the problems we solve require work in data analytics and crop disease. But if we want to use less pesticides, we have to look at how, with sensors and imaging, we can analyze the development of disease across our fields."

Sébastien Windsor, President of Agriculture Chamber

There are also implications for more sustainable meat production. For example, poultry farmers use RFID tags to track their chickens. "These follow the chicken throughout its life – even after its life by being linked up with QR codes on packaging," says Windsor. "A consumer could use the information captured by the RFID chips to find out how the chicken was reared and how fresh it is," he said.

This example illustrates how precision farming tools can deliver on increasing both the quantity of food for a growing population while also providing food quality. "I really feel that with data analysis, we can improve quality and explain to the consumer what we are doing and why it benefits them," he said.

Space-age farming

While machine-imaging systems applied to agricultural processes can help maximize crop yield, farmers must be trained to use these solutions effectively. They must also possess infrastructure that supports agile agriculture, even while technologists evangelize their solutions.

"We have to get faster at making these innovations ready for use and make farmers aware these solutions exist."

Sébastien Windsor, President of Agriculture Chamber

European farmers are certainly beginning to make more use of these systems. The EU recently began accepting information from the EU's Copernicus satellite as part of the Common Agricultural Payments approval process. The move reduces reliance on invasive farm checks, while also encouraging the farming community to become more familiar with space age farming equipment.

What about the robots?

There's lots of discussion around the use of migrant labor for tough agricultural jobs. Will robots put these people out of work?

Not while robots cost more to run than humans, are limited to flat terrain and are unable to handle robust agricultural environments. At present, robots are "probably most useful in greenhouses or on small fields," said Windsor.

This will change, of course. The Small Robot Company is developing a range of robotic and AI farm tools. The company claims these solutions can reduce chemicals and emissions by 95 percent, cut costs by 60 percent and grow 40 percent more revenues.

All the same, where Agriculture 4.0 is today, farmers, governments and the food industry seem to be coalescing around AI and machine imaging as agricultural augmentation solutions, rather than as agricultural labor replacements.

To find out more about how machine intelligence can enable your farm to work more efficiently and deliver better yields, please watch our webinar.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.