Five technologies changing agriculture

From driverless tractors to drones, new technology is changing the way we farm. These five innovations are at the leading edge of all that.

SMART SCANNING

Robotic scanning technology is increasingly helping farmers be more productive. For example, Craige Mackenzie’s Agri Opticsbusiness has developed a device called SmartN, which scans the ground and detects where cows have urinated. Because cow urine puts nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous into the soil, the machine makes sure only spots that haven’t been peed on get additional fertiliser. Mackenzie says that can cut fertiliser use by up to 30%, and avoid excess nitrates leaching into groundwater. Meanwhile, scientists are developing weed scanner technology, which can recognise individual weed varieties and spray unwanted plants, leaving the rest of the plants untouched.

DRIVERLESS TRACTORS

The Google self-driving car? Pah, old hat. Driverless farm vehicles have been around for at least a decade, but mostly need a human in the cab to make decisions in an emergency, like if a cow wanders into its path. But a farmer can programme the coordinates of the field into the tractor’s system and then the machine can plough, or spread fertiliser or whatever, all by itself, using GPS technology. Meanwhile the farmer can be running his business from an iPad in the cab. John Deere, one of several autonomous vehicle manufacturers, says the technology also provides large savings in terms of avoiding missed spots and repetition. The next stage, where external sensors take over the supervisory role, won’t need a driver.

DRONES

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is the poster child of smart agricultural technology, though it’s still in its infancy in New Zealand. The first unmanned crop-spraying drone got Civil Aviation Authority approval last year under new rules, but the potential is clear for a multitude of tasks from crop management to real-time monitoring of animals on distant paddocks. The Agra MG-1 “octocopter” is a Chinese-developed drone designed to spray large areas of farmland with pesticides or fertilisers. Its manufacturer DJI claims it can spray 4,000-6,000m² in 10 minutes. In NZ, drone company Haptly is working on technology to collect pasture quality information and send it via the cloud to a farmer's device. And Tauranga-based GPS-ithas developed drones which map farms and orchards, and record crop density from above.

SAMPLING AND SENSORS

Soil sampling, electromagnetic mapping and sensor technology mean farmers can now work out the soil anatomy of different parts of a single field, and adjust water or nutrients. For example, some areas of a field might be predominantly clay (and so retain water) whereas others might be faster draining, and so need more watering. Sampling and mapping tools collect that information, and then farmers combine the data with a tractor’s internal software to vary how much water and fertiliser to put on each patch of ground. And it’s not only tractors with that level of sophistication. Planes can be programmed to drop fertiliser only where it’s needed, and irrigators (those big rotating booms you see inching their way across a field in summer) can be programmed so each nozzle releases water only where needed. The savings in water and fertiliser from these technologies can be 30-50 percent, according to Craige Mackenzie, one of New Zealand’s most technologically-savvy farmers.

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS

Darkness falls, but the kiwifruit pickers keep on picking – because they are robots. Also known as agbots, robots that can pick fruit are being developed by a number of companies around the world, including Tauranga-based RoboticsPlus. Scanning and imaging technology will allow the robots to handle the varying shapes of individual fruit, and apply the correct pressure. RoboticsPlus reckons commercially-viable orchard robots are 3-4 years away, though packing robots are already operating in a shed near you. International pundits predict that by the mid 2020s, entire farms could be staffed by“robotic farm swarms”, packs of agbots each with thousands of microscopic sensors, which monitor, predict, cultivate and extract crops with practically no human intervention.

This story first appeared inThe Download.