Often described as one of the least digitised industries in the world, agriculture is facing one of it’s biggest challenges — to embrace the myriad technologies designed to create more productive, and more profitable farms. And with technology often comes automation, which may fundamentally change the ways our farms and agri-supply chains operate.
WiFi connected crops
The introduction of sensors into cropping and livestock has provided farmers with a much better look into the overall health, climatic and environmental conditions of their crops or livestock. Through cloud based software integrated with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors, farmers have live access to this valuable data and better information to make decisions around the ways their farms are managed. Replacing manual checks and spreadsheets, these sensors help build data rich reports to assist farmers in managing long term trends and to forecast future seasons.
The arrival of the ‘agbot’
Robots too, are sweeping across agriculture. Commonly known as agbots, we may soon see them working out in paddocks, assisting in the automation of tasks such as harvesting, fruit picking, ploughing, maintenance, weeding, planting and irrigation. Ranging in functionality from menial tasks to providing absolute precision and technical skills, these ‘swarms’ of agbots may one day manage farms almost entirely independent of human intervention. Dozens of robots could work together to monitor, predict, cultivate and extract crops from the land, working in harsh climatic conditions for long, uninterrupted periods of time.
The rise of self-driving cars in cities like Adelaide, is being mirrored on the farm. Self-driving tractors are becoming more common as a way to save time and money, particularly in conditions that would otherwise be hazardous for humans. Some attach to human-driven tractors, while others are highly customisable with sensors and attachments performing highly specific tasks, such as detecting where cows have urinated and treating the affected grass to stimulate regrowth.
Eyes in the sky
Mapping technologies have also taken an enormous step up thanks to drones and GPS systems. Drones provide farmers with a bird’s eye view of their crops, land and livestock. These drones fly autonomously, taking instructions from a set of GPS data.
Used regularly, drones can help build a time series animation of a farm’s fields throughout the growing season. This data can then be used to identify how crops change over a season and from one season to the next. Drones have multiple sensors, giving farmers two types of visuals: basic digital photographs to show areas where plants are suffering from irrigation or pest and fungus infestations that are harder to find at ground level, and multi-spectral infrared images which can identify healthy and distressed plants in ways that can’t be seen with conventional photography or the human eye.
So, what does this mean for farmers and their jobs?
Are robots, sensors and drones putting farmers out of a job? Not so fast.
Many of these new technologies are designed to improve the efficiency with which we can perform both menial or high risk tasks, and ultimately free up the operator to up skill in other ways. Farmers will have more data and time to make better informed decisions about the practical management of their businesses. Technology also means a safer workplace, with drones and robots able to perform repetitive, physical work in hazardous conditions.
Digitisation and the growth of technology will bring about some significant changes and automation to agriculture, freeing up farmers to focus on doing what they do best.
Jobs and opportunities are growing in new areas of agriculture too. As a start up in the agricultural industry, AgriDigital has a team of grain growers and agribusiness experts, bringing their knowledge of on farm practices to the juncture of technology. While these jobs may not be in the paddock, the solutions coming out of agtech is hugely profitable for the entire industry.
Australia now has its own agriculture accelerator, a collaboration between Findex and the National Farmers Federation called SproutX, designed to support agtech startups and create a national coworking space. The growing numbers of entrepreneurs and start ups in agriculture is a positive sign for the growth, innovation and change of the industry. It’s an exciting space to be in.