By Alex Thomasson
Today's agriculture has transformed into a high-tech enterprise that most 20th-century farmers might barely recognize.
Beyond the now de rigeur air conditioning and stereo system, a modern large tractor's enclosed cabin includes computer displays indicating machine performance, field position and operating characteristics of attached machinery like seed planters.
And as amazing as today's technologies are, they're just the beginning. Self-driving machinery and flying robots able to automatically survey and treat crops will become commonplace on farms that practice what's come to be called precision agriculture.
The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is optimization, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint. We only want to apply the optimal amount of any input (water, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel, labor) when and where it's needed to efficiently produce high crop yields.
Automatic guidance, whereby a GPS-based system steers the tractor in a much more precise pattern than the driver is capable of is a tremendous success story. Safety concerns currently limit completely driverless capability to smaller machines. Fully autonomous or robotic field machines have begun to be employed in small-scale high profit-margin agriculture such as wine grapes, nursery plants and some fruits and vegetables.
Autonomous machines can replace people performing tedious tasks, such as hand-harvesting vegetables. They use sensor technologies, including machine vision that can detect things like location and size of stalks and leaves to inform their mechanical processes. Japan is a trend leader in this area. Typically, agriculture is performed on smaller fields and plots there, and the country is an innovator in robotics. But autonomous machines are becoming more evident in the US, particularly in California where much of the country's specialty crops are grown.
The development of flying robots gives rise to the possibility that most field-crop scouting currently done by humans could be replaced by UAVs with machine vision and hand-like grippers. Many scouting tasks, such as for insect pests, require someone to walk to distant locations in a field, grasp plant leaves on representative plants and turn them over to see the presence or absence of insects. Researchers are developing technologies to enable such flying robots to do this without human involvement.
Breeding, Sensors and Robots
High-throughput plant phenotyping (HTPP) is an up-and-coming precision agriculture technology at the intersection of genetics, sensors and robotics. It is used to develop new varieties or "lines" of a crop to improve characteristics such as nutritive content and drought and pest tolerance. HTPP employs multiple sensors to measure important physical characteristics of plants, such as height; leaf number, size, shape, angle, color, wilting; stalk thickness; number of fruiting positions. These are examples of phenotypic traits, the physical expression of what a plant's genes code for. Scientists can compare these measurements to already-known genetic markers for a particular plant variety.
The sensor combinations can very quickly measure phenotypic traits on thousands of plants on a regular basis, enabling breeders and geneticists to decide which varieties to include or exclude in further testing, tremendously speeding up further research to improve crops.
Agricultural production has come so far in even the past couple decades that it's hard to imagine what it will look like in a few more. But the pace of high-tech innovations in agriculture is only increasing. Don't be surprised if, 10 years from now, you drive down a rural highway and see a very small helicopter flying over a field, stopping to descend into the crop, use robotic grippers to manipulate leaves, cameras and machine vision to look for insects, and then rise back above the crop canopy and head toward its next scouting location. All with nary a human being in sight.