Farmers are using automation to become better micromanagers. While the term, micromanaging, may have negative connotations, on the farm, being a micromanager is the goal. During time-critical parts of the year, farmers might operate equipment 14-20 hours a day, exceeding the comfortable limit of human concentration. Advanced robotics and automation take the burden off the farmer, completing many of the jobs at the scale necessary with greater accuracy and precision.
There are fewer farmers now than just 15 years ago. And those farmers have to produce more food.
- According to the Global Harvest Initiative, 58 million fewer people were employed in agriculture in 2019 compared to 2005, an 11% decrease.
- Farmers are tasked with producing food for a rapidly growing world population – projected to go from the current 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, according to UN data.
Varied Forms of Farm Automation
The heart of farm automation is the ability to track the farm field-by-field, even row-by-row. “Farm automation as we know it today was enabled by GPS technology. John Deere invested heavily in GPS during the late1990s and early 2000s,” Zach Bonefas, automation technology leader at John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, told Design News. “GPS was used to map yields and productivity. Before GPS, farmers managed on a field-by-field basis. Once armed with GPS, farmers could make decisions on a smaller scale, moving into precision farming.”
With precision tools, farmers can vary the seed population and nutrients to the field. “The farmer can monitor this in real-time. We developed planning implements to vary the rate of seeding. Same with spraying at different rates,” said Bonefas. “Farmers demanded more and more precision. We can vary rates on each row on a planter or each nozzle on a sprayer. There are also tools that automatically steers the equipment through the field.”
Farm automation is designed to assist the farmer in being effective during long workdays. “There’s the human factor. The equipment that gets bigger and more complex. Operating that machinery all day can be mentally draining,” said Bonefas. “When farmers started to adopt automation, they were fresher at the end of the day.”
Automation is now designed to help the farmer see the condition of the materials the machine is harvesting and change the process accordingly. “We’ve developed cameras inside the machine that use AI algorithms to monitor the process. The system automatically adjusts to alter the quality of work the machine is doing,” said Bonefas. “There is also spray technology that enables equipment to provide herbicides only when the weed is present. This reduces the amount of herbicide needed and ultimately reduces the cost of food production.”
While we might think that farm automation belongs to massive corporate farms, in actuality, the equipment doesn’t care if the farm is large or small. “The issues are the same whether it’s a family farm or a corporate farm. Labor is hard to come by and weather affects the work,” said Bonefas. “Large or small, farmers need to be more productive when they can get into the field, and they need better data to increase their production.”
Pitching Hay When the Sun Shines
The weather has always been a major issue in farming. While automation can’t change the weather, it can help the farmer get more done when the weather is cooperative. “Sometimes mother nature doesn’t cooperate, so farmers work longer days. When the conditions are right, they have to get the crop in the field or get it out quickly,” said Bonefas. “The automation makes it easier to work longer days and make the days more productive.”
This past August, farmers had to deal with acres of corn and soybeans flattened by hurricane-force winds. These derecho-flattened crops are a pain to harvest. “One farmer said. ‘Thank god for technology or we couldn’t have harvested all of our corn,’” said Bonefas.
Automation can also adjust to conditions during the work. Sensors can perceive what the equipment is facing in the field and shift to move effective ways to do the work. “When the job of the machine is to separate the grain from the rest of the plant, there are 10 different adjustments that affect how well the machine does that,” said Bonefas. “Weather conditions can change during the day. The adjustments change as well.”
An Eye to User Experience
Just as with factory automation, smart farm tools have become easier for the user to deploy. User-friendly interfaces have become part of the design process for farm equipment. “The amount of effort we put into our user experience has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, we put a fraction of thought into user experience compared with today. We started bringing people into our company with experience in user interfaces,” said Bonefas. “We researched the user experience to make it a bigger part of our design process. We validate user experience as part of our development. Our new automation tools have to be accessible to the customer and easy to get up and going.”
Farming now has its own version of IoT and predictive maintenance. “Ten years ago, we started putting cellular modems to get information from the machines,” said Bonefas. “Some diagnostics go to the dealer. Sometimes a dealer will know about an issue on a customer’s machine and deliver the part before the customer knows there’s an issue.”
The data coming off the farm equipment can be used for data analytics. With farming, however, the data analytics can include the view from the remote farming expert. “Now the data from the equipment goes up into the cloud and is sent to trusted agronomists to make decisions on how to best utilize the land,” said Bonefas. “They measure the density of seeds, chemicals, or nutrients, even the optimal pass you want the machine to drive as it covers the field.”
Global Effect of Automation
While the US has made significant progress in implementing farm automation, the same is not true worldwide. “Different regions have embraced technology at different rates. Farmers in North America, Europe, and Australia are ahead with automation,” said Bonefas. “Now we’re seeing it in China and India. GPS is critical, so we own a GPS network. We have a set of terrestrial way stations sprinkled around the globe.”
If food production is going to match population growth, automation is going to have to expand significantly. “By the year 2050, there will be 10 billion people on earth to feed. That’s 50% more people than we have now, and that means we’ll need to produce 50% more food,” said Bonefas. “ The number of farmable acres is going down and not up. The acres that are farmed will need to be more productive than in previous years. Automation will make the difference.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.