Autonomy, IoT enhance farming through the senses

Farmers are natural providers who take great pride and care in creating what we need for our daily lives, and whether it’s food, fuel or clothing, the majority of our basic needs originate on the farm. But with the United Nations predicting a spike in our global population reaching 9.7 billion by 2050, farmers must increase agricultural productivity by 60 to 70%.

Every day we use our five basic senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste to help us understand and experience the world around us. For a farmer, these senses are one of the most valuable resources they have to grow the crops needed to support our rapidly increasing population.

But farmers can only take their senses so far. They can’t possibly see everything happening on their farms, which can be vast and spread across many different locations, and they’re also limited to what they can accomplish in a 24-hour day. Farmers are turning to advanced technologies to amplify their senses and enable them to do more within the increasingly narrow windows of time available to them, which ultimately allows them to work at a speed and scale beyond human capacity.

Seeing and doing more

No one knows the land like a farmer. For generations, they’ve prepped, planted, nurtured and harvested crops based on insights from previous seasons. These insights, however, were limited to after a completed harvest when farmers could see and analyze what processes and tools helped produce a good season. By using robotic technology and hundreds of sensors powered by machine learning and computer vision, farmers can “see” and “feel” the conditions of their farm in real-time, giving them greater insight into what’s happening in the moment rather than after the season’s end.

Farmers plant millions of seeds every year, and one mistake during this process can have costly consequences for the entire season. To plant as efficiently as possible, farmers use a multi-ton robot that maneuvers through the field using GPS guidance and sensors to guide seeds to the exact spacing and depth in the soil needed for plants to grow in the best conditions possible. While all of this is going on, the machine collects data that the farmer monitors in real-time and leverages for quick and reliable decision-making. By extending farmers’ eyes and hands through the robotic planter, they can focus their attention on the bigger picture rather than the details of the planting process.

Machine learning and computer vision are also becoming commonplace on the farm. For example, throughout the year plants must be nourished and protected, so farmers use GPS-enabled sprayers to apply nutrients only where needed. These machines have hundreds of sensors to measure variables and environmental factors such as weather, wind speed and changes in terrain. They can be equipped with cameras that use machine learning and computer vision to identify a plant vs. a weed in milliseconds and inform the robotic nozzles where and how much to spray. Before this kind of technology, farmers had to treat plants acre-by-acre, but by focusing on the individual plant, farmers can grow healthier, more successful crops using fewer inputs, ultimately saving the farmer time and contributing to a more sustainable operation.  

When plants are ready to be removed from the field, farmers use a two-ton robot called a combine. These “factories on wheels” use sensors and cameras to help the farmer “see” every plant as it’s removed from the field, processed through the machine and moved into a storage bin. Without this kind of technology, farmers can't see what’s happening inside the machine and may harvest acres of their field before realizing something’s wrong or mix damaged crop with healthy crop, hurting their end product. So while the robot moves through the field, machine learning applications analyze data about the plants and the machine to provide automatic adjustments for the most desirable outcomes.

Connecting it all together

How do all of these technologies work together? The Internet of Things (IoT) is like the “nervous system” of a farmer’s operation, connecting all of the smart technology on the farm through a cloud-based information highway. With so many inputs and outputs to manage, data collection and utilization is an integral part of farming, as it informs every aspect of the growing cycle. The latest IoT applications help farmers to collect, manage and store vast amounts of data, direct machines through the cloud and amplify instructions to every part of the farm.

Connectivity ranges from the big (e.g. large geospatial communication systems) to the small (e.g. individual robotic sprayer nozzles) to enable these smart, connected machines to function with increasing precision and automation. Access to real-time data through the IoT also gives farmers greater freedom to work productively yet flexibly. While the IoT and other advanced technologies can do a lot of things to improve efficiency on the farm, without full autonomy, farmers still had to be in the cab to keep things running. All of that is changing with autonomy now a reality in agriculture.

The future is now on the farm with autonomy

Agriculture is leading the way in smart, precise and automated processes, which start with the simple senses that are so vital to every farmer. That progress has now made full autonomy on the farm real in 2022, which will be the ultimate expansion of the farmer’s senses. In deploying equipment that moves throughout the field and also performs all the complex jobs taking place along the way, farmers have more eyes, ears and hands to help get the job done than ever before.

Melissa Neuendorf is a group product manager within the Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) at John Deere with over 20 years of experience in the technology industry.