There wasn’t really any big news that came from last week’s USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report. While we’re waiting for crops to finally get planted, it seems all we can really do is speculate. And there’s plenty of that going around. If you’re in the mood for speculation, you might find some conjecture coming out of Canada regarding the future of farming interesting to ponder.
In a report from businessinsider.com, futurist and “data visualizer,” Michell Zappa of Envisioning lays out his projections for what’s coming down the road (and not necessarily country roads) in agriculture (click here to see the story). Entitled, “15 Emerging Agriculture Technologies That Will Change the World,” Zappa worked with Policy Horizons Canada, which appears to be a government sponsored think tank, to produce the report. He also provides estimates when these technologies will be scientifically and financially viable.
While we don’t have space here to cover all 15 of the futurist’s developments, here are the ones that equipment dealers and manufacturers might find the most interesting. You’ll probably notice that some of these are already well on the way to farm fields and barns.
- Air & soil sensors: Fundamental additions to the automated farm, these sensors would enable a real time understanding of current farm, forest or body of water conditions. Scientifically viable in 2013; mainstream and financially viable in 2015.
- Equipment telematics: Allows mechanical devices such as tractors to warn mechanics that a failure is likely to occur soon. Intra-tractor communication can be used as a rudimentary “farm swarm” platform. Scientifically viable in 2013; mainstream in 2016; and financially viable in 2017.
- Livestock biometrics: Collars with GPS, RFID and biometrics can automatically identify and relay vital information about the livestock in real time. Scientifically viable in 2017; mainstream and financially viable in 2020.
- Crop sensors: Instead of prescribing field fertilization before application, high-resolution crop sensors inform application equipment of correct amounts needed. Optical sensors or drones are able to identify crop health across the field. Scientifically viable in 2015; mainstream in 2018; and financially viable in 2019.
- Variable rate swath control: Building on existing geolocation technologies, by pre-computing the shape of the field where the inputs are to be used, and by understanding the relative productivity of different areas of the field, tractors or agbots can procedurally apply inputs at variable rates throughout the field. Scientifically viable in 2013; mainstream in 2014; and financially viable in 2016.
- Rapid iteration selective breeding: The next generation of selective breeding where the end-result is analyzed quantitatively and improvements are suggested algorithmically. Scientifically viable in 2014; mainstream and financially viable in 2017.
- Agricultural robots: Also known as agbots, these are used to automate agricultural processes, such as harvesting, fruit picking, plowing, soil maintenance, weeding, planting, irrigation, etc. Scientifically viable in 2018; mainstream in 2020; and financially viable in 2021.
- Precision agriculture: Farming management based on observing (and responding to) intra-field variations. With satellite imagery and advanced sensors, farmers can optimize returns on inputs while preserving resources at ever-larger scales. Further understanding of crop variability, geolocated weather data and precise sensors should allow improved automated decision making and complementary planting techniques. Scientifically viable in 2019; mainstream in 2023; and financially viable in 2024.
- Robotic farm swarms: The hypothetical combination of dozens or hundreds of agricultural robots with thousands of microscopic sensors, which together would monitor, predict, cultivate and extract crops from the land with practically no human intervention. Small-scale implementations are already on the horizon. Scientifically viable in 2023; mainstream and financially viable in 2026.
What I found curious with the list is that no mention is made of autonomous vehicles, things like driverless tractors, combines, etc. We already know about Kinze’s development of an autonomous grain harvesting system.
As far back as 2006, CNH was talking about their development of a “cabless combine.” (See “How Far Will Technology Take Agriculture?" Farm Equipment, January 2006).
In any case, it is fascinating to observe how the development of new technologies is reshaping ag. By the way, another one of the new technologies that Zappa spoke of was “vertical farming.” It will be interesting to see what manufacturers come up with to plant and harvest a field in a skyscraper.