August 06, 2018

Five tech trends shaping agriculture

These are the most important tech trends shaping agriculture, both today and into the future. 

AgTech is the name given to the emerging technologies and companies that are providing new digital tools to help farmers better understand their inputs and what happens on-farm, better manage their operations, and be more productive and efficient. 

With some estimates forecasting a near-doubling of demand for food by 2050, technology plays a critical role in helping meet the challenges of feeding a growing global population and mitigating the environmental impacts.

Here are top five most important AgTech trends:

1) Sensors everywhere and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is proving to be a transformational technology for many sectors, and agriculture is no exception. With the increasing coverage of data networks like 4G and low-power networks like LoRa and Sigfox, plus the declining costs of sensors and chips, connecting the real world into digital management systems has never been easier – and this trend will only continue.

Sensors in paddocks can report on factors like moisture levels, fertiliser loading and soil composition. Sensors on animals can track their health, fertility, location, and progress, and sensors on equipment capture better agronomic data and mechanisation loads.

This can provide farmers with far deeper and more accurate insights into every part of their farm operation.

2) Analytics and Machine Learning

These connected sensors will produce huge amounts of information, but none of it is useful unless it’s presented in a meaningful way. This is where analytics comes in.

Using Machine Learning – a subset of Artificial Intelligence which gives computers the ability to look at sets of data and ‘learn’ from them without the guidance of a human – analytics software can make sense of the huge amounts of data and make predictions about what might happen next.

Back decision-making up with hard data and these insights mean farmers can make better decisions about farm and animal management – for example, the best time to apply fertiliser or to irrigate, maximising outputs while minimising inputs.

3) Doing anything anywhere

Mobile technology has transformed the global economy, with smartphones and data networks enabling a new wave of innovation which has re-shaped the way we interact with the world – changing everything from taking photos to getting around.

Mobile data networks continue to provide more coverage and faster speeds to more people, which brings the same capabilities on-farm.

Not having to wait to get back to the computer in the evening means farmers can make use of analytics and management software throughout the day – tools like Agrigate -- putting the power to get detailed information and insights in real-time, literally in their hands.

4) Robotics and Automation

Self-driving tractors have been capturing the imagination since the 1940s, but are closer to reality than ever before, driven by labour shortages and huge leaps in technologies like LIDAR and Machine Vision. Autonomous tractors will allow farmers to manage their tractors remotely, or eventually allow them to manage themselves.

Automation is not just transforming agriculture on the land. With the help of drones, it’s also transforming things from the air.

Drones already help farmers quickly carry out time-consuming tasks ordinarily done on-foot or by multiple people – such as doing inspections, monitoring pasture, livestock and water levels, and some farmers even use them to move stock and apply sprays to their crops.

As they improve, such as getting longer battery life and more powerful engines, their capabilities to carry out more on-farm tasks will grow.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Machine Vision are also being used by equipment companies like John Deere to automatically identify, analyse and make management decisions about plants and crops at an individual level, reducing the need to use herbicides by up to 90 per cent and helping fight weed resistance.

5) Doing it on the Blockchain

Blockchain might be a buzzword associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but the technology has far wider applications and the potential to revolutionise traceability for food.

At its most basic, blockchain is a way of verifying and permanently storing a record of an event, but without a central authority. For cryptocurrencies, the blockchain plays the role of a bank – it is the authority on all transactions, recording and verifying who sent what to who, when and how much.

In agriculture, blockchain can be used to trace a product every step of the way, from pasture to plate. The decentralisation of blockchain means it can be authoritative but open and accessible at the same time, allowing anyone to track a product’s history at any point.

As food safety and authenticity becomes more important for consumers and farmers alike, blockchain can be used to give people uncorrupted and authoritative records on exactly where their food has been and where it has come from.

Blockchain implementations face issues with their power consumption, as the computing power required to do the ‘proof of work’ and validate transactions can be very high. Private blockchains are already reducing the computation work required to reduce power consumption, while public ones and other start-ups are looking at tweaks and further changes to how the operate in order to do the same. 

Fonterra has already started a pilot programme with Alibaba for food traceability on blockchain.

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