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Tech Tools on the Job: Farmers

26 Feb 2016 by Teresa Meek

Though few people outside the agricultural sector realize it, technology is revolutionizing farming. Here’s a look at some of today’s cutting-edge systems — and a glimpse into the hyper-automated future:

Cloud

Sensors are being placed on farm equipment to give readings on soil nitrogen and water levels, enabling farmers to optimize water and fertilizer use and improve yields.

Sensors can also detect sickness and reproductive readiness in livestock, sending SMS alerts to breeders or farmers. For instance, Microsoft Azure-powered pedometers get dairies moving as cloud data tracking helps farmers monitor their cows’ health and know when they’re in heat.

Telematics

Farmers no longer have to wait for equipment to break down before fixing it. Through telematics, they can they can read metrics on a laptop or tablet to “see” if a malfunction is imminent. Telematics also enables them to view a map locating their vehicles and noting how much fuel they contain, as well as how much crop they have harvested and how much fertilizer they have used.

RFID technology

Now used to identify livestock animals, RFID chips’ next destination is crops. Hay balers are already using them to track weight and moisture levels. If use becomes widespread, consumers, increasingly concerned about the provenance of their food, will be able to learn exactly how farmers grow plants and judge for themselves if methods meet their environmental standards.

Satellite tracking

Farmers use satellites to gather detailed images of their fields. Some satellites also produce algorithmic prescriptions for soil and crop health.

Equipment automation

Standard farm equipment now includes GPS steering, automatic balers, automated control of combines and harvesters, and automated tractor power management. For seeding and fertilizing, manufacturers are introducing machinery that can apply several products at different rates simultaneously.

Autonomous vehicles

Some farmers are taking the leap from automated systems within vehicles to fully autonomous farm vehicles, which decrease labor costs and allow a single operator to manage many vehicles at once.

Drones

As drones move from being backyard toys to commercial tools, who do you think the heaviest users will be — Amazon? The police and the military?

Guess again. Eighty percent of commercial drone use will be for agriculture, predicts the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Not only will drones spray crops — they will provide high-resolution images, cheaper than those produced by satellites, allowing farmers to pinpoint precisely how much water, fertilizer, and insecticides crops need, conserving money and resources and leading to less water pollution from overuse. Thermal imaging cameras, made specifically for drones, will show farmers which crops are affected by drought or disease.

Power generation

John Deere has developed a prototype tractor that produces electricity used to power other farm implements. Someday, these machines may power entire sets of “smart” electric implements.

This article originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 1 of Technically digital magazine.