The Basics of Farming Efficiency

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John Deere’s equipment can plant private seeds to within an accuracy of 3cm. When a crop is collected, the rate at which grains or beans flow into the harvester’s tank can be measured from moment to minute. That info, when integrated with GPS information, creates a yield map that shows which littles land were more or less productiveand therefore how precise the soil and sensor-based forecasts were.

Whereas making equipment, breeding brand-new crops or manufacturing agrochemicals all have high barriers to entry, a data-based farm-management system can be put together by any business person, even without a track record in agriculture. And numerous are having a go. Trimble Navigation, based in Sunnyvale, at the southern end of Silicon Valley, reckons that as a recognized geographical-information company it is well placed to move into the smart-farming market, with a system called Connected Farms.

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And much better, cheaper sensing units, too, are on their method. Moisture sensors, for instance, generally work by measuring either the conductivity or the capacitance of soil, but a firm called Water, Bit, based in Santa Clara, California, is utilizing a different innovation which it states can do the task at a tenth of the price of the existing products.

Mavrx’s method can be scaled as much as cover whole areas and even nations, anticipating the size of the harvests prior to they are collected. That is powerful monetary and political info. A really automated, factory-like farm, however, would have to cut individuals out of the loop completely. That implies introducing robots on the ground as well as in the air, and there are a lot of enthusiastic agricultural-robot makers trying to do so.

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At the minute it does this with precise, and exactly aimed, doses of herbicide. But it, or something similar, could rather utilize a beam of microwaves, and even a laser. That would enable the crops concerned to be recognised as “natural” by clients who disapprove of chemical treatments. For the less fussy, Rowbot Systems of Minneapolis is developing a bot that can travel in between rows of partly grown maize plants, allowing it to use extra side dressings of fertiliser to the plants without crushing them.

Robotics are also of interest to growers of fruit and vegetables that are currently picked by hand. Fruit-picking is a time-consuming service which, although the pickers are not well rewarded, would be a lot faster and less expensive if it were automated. And robotic pickers are beginning to appear. The SW6010, made by AGROBOT, a Spanish company, uses a video camera to identify strawberries and work out which are ripe for the plucking.

The Basics of Farming Efficiency

In the Netherlands, researchers at Wageningen University are working on a robotic harvester for bigger produce such as peppers. All these devices, and others like them, still radiate a whiff of the Heath Robinson. Robotics is establishing rapidly, and the control systems required to run such machines are getting much better and less expensive by the day.

Yet others question simply how far farmers will let their farms be robotised. Self-guiding farming equipment such as that offered by John Deere is all however robotic already. It resembles an airliner, in which the pilot usually has little to do in between landing and liftoff since computer systems do the work for him.

Judd Cole