Smart farms: 8 ways technology is changing agriculture

The story of technology and agriculture began when humans first began farming 12,000 years ago. Technology may help us today when we need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050. Here are eight ways technology is already changing agriculture:

Farmer drone

Swiss drone maker SenseFly has built solutions to help agriculture from the air. Drones equipped with Sensefly software capture high-resolution photos of fields in order to analyse crop health and create accurate prescriptions for farming decisions. In another deployment, BioCarbon has developed a way to use drones to seed a billion trees each year – might drones plant a future field?

Down on the robo-farm

“This new wave of smart machines will revolutionize the way in which we grow crops in the future by using intelligently targeted inputs,” said Professor Simon Blackmore, Head of Engineering at Harper Adams University. Agricultural robots will eventually engage in all kinds of agricultural activities, from driving tractors to weed prevention, strawberry picking and disease control. One Agri-tech Catalyst research project uses 3D cameras to identify when broccoli are ready for harvesting, an essential step toward the automation of harvesting.

Data for the people

Dacom develops cutting edge hardware, software and online advisory services for arable farms and other agribusiness organizations throughout the world. Using a smartphone farmers use Dacom’s yield management systems to monitor and make insight-driven decisions about water, fertilizer, crop yields, growing conditions, weather patterns and more. “We’re able to help …  anticipate needs and allocate resources and materials on a continuous basis... It’s all about enabling them to be more efficient, less wasteful and to maximize yield,” Dacom CEO Janneke Hadders, told Real Times.

Connected water

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of all fresh water use, but around 60 percent of this is wasted. Smart systems can help mitigate the problem by warning farmers of leaks, equipment failure and enabling them to remotely control water pumps. In India farmers are already using a system called Nano Ganesh, a mobile phone-based remote control system for water pumps. This enables farmers to slash travel and water costs/waste by irrigating crops remotely. Researchers at Chile’s Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción (UCSC) claim use of irrigation sensors across Chile’s blueberry farms could cut water consumption by about 70%. Similar research is taking place worldwide with NASA and the US Geological Survey working to combine soil moisture data gathered across the US with satellite imagery to yield fresh insights.

Electric fish

The world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon, Marine Harvest, recently inked a deal in which Orange Business will provide network services to boost collaboration and improve production. Marine Harvest uses secure video monitoring to monitor fish production to help manage all aspects of fishing activity. “Fish breeding might appear on the surface to be fairly low tech, but to become a world leader, it demands ongoing data monitoring at each stage of the seafood value chain, as well as efficient production flows,” said Merethe Johansen, global WAN manager at Marine Harvest.

Hail, the connected cow

Connected wearables have impact on Livestock and fisheries management, from tracking locations to monitoring health conditions. Farmers already use these to monitor pregnant cattle, milking frequency and watch for disease symptoms. There are several M2M livestock solutions, such as the satellite collar-based management system, FindMySheep. This system lets you find your animal and watch a video showing where it travels on the map. Another system from General Alert adds an extensive list of health and management monitoring for use in pig farms.

For the people

Not every farm (or farmer) is connected. To connect even a medium-sized smallholding requires major investment, so how can the benefits of connected agriculture be made available to those who lack the necessary capital? In Africa, where over 10 million mostly subsistence farming households exist, a local system called Esoko brings some good benefits. Esoko communicates key agricultural information to farmers, including local weather forecasts, hints and tips for food production and an eBay-style marketplace. The most used feature is its provision of commodity market prices for different crops to help farmers make better selling decisions. That element of the system boosted farmer’s profits by about 12 percent in two years.

Data, the new agriculture

With M2M, agricultural activity doesn’t just generate crops, it also grows another valuable crop – data. Produce World Group’s Soil-for-life Beta project analyses data gathered across its supply chain to help guide producer decision-making. In a three-year research project in conjunction with Cranfield University, Produce World seeks scientific evidence to support sustainable intensification and maintenance of soil health at a field, farm and enterprise scale. Data derived from the study will inform the company’s Soil Information Management System. The researchers expect increased use of big data analysis across the agricultural supply chain, unlocking production efficiency.

Beyond normal

Technology isn’t only about improving how we already do things, in some cases it enables us to do things we couldn’t do before. That’s certainly what we see in the work of the Ocean Reef Group, which is experimenting with growing a range of produce in pods situated beneath the sea. We’re not talking about fish farming here, these crops include red cabbage, lettuce, beans basil and strawberries – have you ever eaten sea strawberry?

Take a look at this Real Times article explaining how M2M solutions can improve wine production, and do explore other ways Orange Business can improve your business processes.

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.