By some reports, agriculture is currently in the midst of a technology revolution. Futuristic technological advancements like autonomous tractors and sprayers certainly have the media’s attention, piggybacking on the popularity of self-driving cars and the like. But what’s the reality of how ag is adopting new technology?
Are Autonomous Technologies at the Heart of the Ag Tech Revolution?
Autonomous technology, while exciting, is likely years off from widespread development, as companies refine and the technology undergoes rigorous testing, experts say. But other technological innovations, while not attracting as much attention, stand to become more common and impact the way we farm sooner.
Ag Technologies Taking Over the Industry
Variable Rate Technology (VRT)
“One becoming increasingly common is VRT – variable rate technology, specifically for spraying,” says Michael Langemeier, a professor at Purdue University who has analyzed technology adoption rates in agriculture.
Recent activity in the ag segment would seem to bear that out. John Deere has been ramping up the “See & Spray” technology it introduced in 2021, and just this week CNH Industrial, the parent of Raven Precision, announced its purchase of Augmenta, a machine vision company with advanced technology like Sense & Act capabilities for a variety of variable rate crop spraying applications.
This type of variable rate technology could become more widely adopted, dependent of course on farmers’ and retailers’ belief in the value propositions, as well as how the costs are structured versus their ROI on the farm.
Technology like See & Spray can tell the difference between brown and green – the weed and the plant. The John Deere technology works on fallow fields only, using advanced cameras and nozzle control for targeted spraying. John Deere says See & Spray Ultimate can reduce herbicide use by 77 percent by target spraying weeds, enabling you to lower input costs.
Drone Spraying Technologies
Langemeier also has his eye on a technology that has been around for a while but is finding new use opportunities. “We’ve had drones for a while in agriculture, but I think we’ll see increased use of drones for spot spraying,” he says. For example, if you have a weed patch in a far corner of the field, you could target it without damaging the rest of your crop or worrying about compaction.
Likewise, drones could help target hot spots faster. “If there is disease in the field, you can’t wait,” he explains. “If you have your own drone, you can handle it immediately. You don’t have to schedule a plane. Anything an airplane does, a drone can do. That’s the comparison I make.”
Drone manufacturer DJI Enterprise says drone spraying can also help the environment. More efficient and more targeted pesticide and herbicide application, along with spot application, are better for the environment and the soil. Companies like Taranis, founded in Israel and now headquartered in the U.S. with regional offices in Brazil, are taking drone technology a step further, with what they call “A.I.-powered crop intelligence.” In short, they’re using drones to capture images throughout the season, tracking growth as well as using data points to identify nutrient deficiencies, for example.
So why does Langemeier see technology like drones and VRT adopted faster than technology like autonomy, which is getting lots of media play? He points to GPS as an indicator. “If you go back in time, GPS was adopted very quickly,” he explains. “It is technology that’s not very expensive, and you can see the value quickly.” Years after auto-steer took off, you’ll now see GPS on farms for field mapping, planning, sampling, yield mapping and more.
Another point Langemeier makes: Historically, technology adoption has also been guided by labor, a trend that continues. “That demographic works against us in rural areas,” he says. “It’s so hard to find skilled labor.”
That’s another advantage of these agriculture technologies: They don’t require a lot of extra labor to manage. Especially in the case of drones, one person can operate the technology.
Is agriculture in the midst of a tech revolution? A better word might be “evolution.” We’re here for it – are you?