This article originally appeared on FutureFood2050.
Last summer, an unmanned drone cruised peacefully in the sky above an Ohio cornfield. Using remote-sensing technology, the aircraft was able to map the emerging corn sprouts hundreds of feet below to within 2 centimeters of accuracy—a task that allows the farmers to keep unprecedented tabs on their crops.
“We can now know which seeds were viable—and even what time they came out of the ground,” without ever stepping foot on the soil, says The Ohio State University agricultural engineer Scott Shearer, who is working on the agricultural drone project in conjunction with the nearby Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Instead of assessing productivity on a field-by-field level, such technology could allow producers to evaluate crop performance on a plant-by-plant basis, boosting both efficiency and profits.
Drones are just one of the technologies moving out of the realm of sci-fi fantasy and into the real world of precision agriculture, a high-tech farming concept that enables farmers to monitor and respond to changing conditions in their fields with laserlike focus, says Shearer. According to Shearer and his colleagues in the field, precision agriculture promises to boost yields, cut costs, reduce waste and even protect the environment by limiting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
“Very seldom do you have a technology that meets the needs of consumers, the production sector and the environment, all at the same time,” says Shearer, who chairs the department of food, agricultural and biological engineering at The Ohio State University. “Precision agriculture provides those opportunities.”
The concept of precision agriculture was first formulated in the 1980s, but it really began to take off in the mid-1990s, Shearer says. At that time he was a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, and collaborating with a local grain farmer interested in testing new technologies coming down the pipeline. Shearer, who got bit by the agriculture bug as a teen working on a large fruit and vegetable farm in his native Ohio, saw the promise of precision technologies immediately, and “all of my work since that point has been in [this] area,” he says.
Precision agriculture’s first game changer was the yield monitor, a small device introduced in the early 1990s. It attaches to a combine harvester to calculate and record yield as grain crops are harvested, says Shearer. Combined with GPS technology, the systems create detailed yield maps, allowing farmers to see precisely where a crop is thriving and where it’s underperforming. For the first time, farmers could hone in on specific problems, and then customize solutions. “Farmers started thinking differently,” Shearer says.
Another early technology, known as automatic section control, has also made its mark among farmers. The system tracks where fertilizers and pesticides have been applied, shutting off sprayer nozzles automatically to avoid overlapping applications. Farmers save time and money—and fewer chemicals wind up in the environment.
Today, even more agricultural processes are becoming automated as precision farming technology becomes increasingly sophisticated. Until now, for example, it’s been up to the farmer to put the right seeds in the right locations. In the past year, however, farm machinery manufacturers have introduced a new device called a dual hybrid meter that eliminates some of the guesswork. Attached to a tractor, the sensor selects which seed hybrid to drop into each hole. “As you move across the field, it automatically changes from one hybrid to the other depending on soil conditions. If you move into a drought-prone area, it plants a drought-tolerant hybrid,” says Shearer. “It’s a chance to push yields even higher.”
Precision agriculture may also help solve a big problem—literally. Over the past half century, farm equipment has ballooned. Since 1960, tractors have grown by about 900 pounds each year, Shearer says, and today’s tractors are approaching 700 horsepower and a staggering 800,000 pounds. Although this enormous equipment allows farmers to cover more ground, planting seeds in a timely fashion when conditions are optimal, Shearer says bigger isn’t always better: “We believe this [additional equipment weight] has an impact on soil structure.”
When soils get compressed under massive machinery, plant yields can drop off significantly. “Some models suggest we’re experiencing a 25 to 30 percent reduction in yield over areas that get trafficked by the equipment,” he says.
To better assess the soil-compaction problem, Shearer and his colleagues at OSU and in the Air Force are using remote-sensing drones to determine the vigor of corn crops in a sample field. The researchers will then match that information to on-the-ground data to see how plants fare in areas trafficked by heavy machinery. With a bigger-picture view of the ways machinery might be damaging soils and yields, researchers can begin to come up with solutions.
As precision agriculture advances, Shearer predicts that fleets of smaller, self-driving tractors could replace the colossal machinery on which many farmers now rely, avoiding the problem of soil compaction altogether. Though fully autonomous vehicles are probably a few years off, he says, it’s only a matter of time. In fact, a number of U.S. companies are already working on taking the driver out of the equation.
And soil quality isn’t the only aspect of farming that stands to benefit from automated farm machinery: According to a 2012 study by the California Farm Bureau Federation, one in five specialty crop growers were unable to finish their harvest due to labor shortages. Driverless machines could help to make up the difference.
Precision for the planet
Shearer is excited about precision agriculture’s potential to boost crop yields and reduce costs for farmers, but the technology’s environmental benefits will also be key, he says.
Recent events in Ohio have driven that point home for him. Last August, a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie left 400,000 Toledo residents without tap water for two days. Such blooms can be traced in part to dissolved nutrients in the water—nutrients that often begin as fertilizer runoff from farms. Precision agriculture can be an important part of solutions to problems like these, says Shearer, because more-targeted application will dramatically reduce the amount of fertilizer being applied to fields overall.
Pollution is only one of the challenges that precision agriculture may help to address in the future, Shearer notes. According to a 2013 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050 to feed the growing population. “This issue of sustainability is going to be front and center, and it’s going to be with us for quite some time,” he says. And while precision agriculture will have its first wave of success in the developed world, he adds, it will eventually help to create sustainable solutions by making farms more efficient and more productive across the globe.
“I’m perhaps more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” Shearer says. “Precision agriculture, coupled with GMOs, may be the thing that makes everything possible.”