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Nature & Wildlife
2015 April
Pg 10 - The Sunshine Express
The Future Is Now
Farmers of the future will utilize
drones, robots and GPS
Today¡¯s agriculture has transformed into a high-tech
enterprise that most 20th-century farmers might
barely recognize.
After all, it was only around 100 years ago that farming
in the US transitioned from animal power to combus-
tion engines. Over the past 20 years the global posi-
tioning system (GPS), electronic sensors and other new
tools have moved farming even further into a techno-
logical wonderland.
Beyond the now de rigeur air conditioning and ste-
reo system, a modern large tractor¡¯s enclosed cabin
includes computer displays indicating machine perfor-
mance, field position and operating characteristics of
attached machinery like seed planters.
And as amazing as today¡¯s technologies are, they¡¯re
just the beginning. Self-driving machinery and flying
robots able to automatically survey and treat crops will
become commonplace on farms that practice what¡¯s
come to be called precision agriculture.
The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is
optimization, from both an economic and an environ-
mental standpoint. We only want to apply the optimal
amount of any input (water, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel,
labor) when and where it¡¯s needed to efficiently pro-
duce high crop yields.
Global positioning gives hyperlocal info
GPS provides accurate location information at any
point on or near the earth¡¯s surface by calculating your
distance from at least three orbiting satellites at once.
So farming machines with GPS receivers are able to
recognize their position within a farm field and adjust
operation to maximize productivity or efficiency at that
location.
Take the example of soil fertility. The farmer uses a
GPS receiver to locate preselected field positions to col-
lect soil samples. Then a lab analyzes the samples, and
creates a fertility map in a geographic information sys-
tem. That¡¯s essentially a computer database program
adept at dealing with geographic data and mapping.
Using the map, a farmer can then prescribe the
amount of fertilizer for each field location that was
sampled. Variable-rate technology (VRT) fertilizer
applicators dispense just exactly the amount required
across the field. This process is an example of what¡¯s
come to be known as precision agriculture.
Info, analysis, tools
Precision agriculture requires three things to be suc-
cessful. It needs site-specific information, which the
soil-fertility map satisfies. It requires the ability to
understand and make decisions based on that site-
specific information. Decision-making is often aided by
computer models that mathematically and statistically
analyze relationships between variables like soil fertil-
ity and the yield of the crop.
Finally, the farmer must have the physical tools to
apply the management decisions. In the example, the
GPS-enabled VRT fertilizer applicator serves this pur-
pose by automatically adjusting its rate as appropriate
for each field position. Other examples of precision
agriculture involve varying the rate of planting seeds
in the field according to soil type and using sensors to
identify the presence of weeds, diseases, or insects so
that pesticides can be applied only where needed.
Site-specific information goes far beyond maps of soil
conditions and yield to include even satellite pictures
that can indicate crop health across the field. Such
remotely sensed images are also commonly collected
from aircraft. Now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs,
or drones) can collect highly detailed images of crop
and field characteristics. These images, whether
analyzed visually or by computer, show differences in
the amount of reflected light that can then be related
to plant health or soil type, for example. Clear crop-
health differences in images ¨C diseased areas appear
much darker in this case ¨C have been used to delin-
eate the presence of cotton root rot, a devastating
and persistent soilborne fungal disease. Once disease
extent is identified in a field, future treatments can
be applied only where the disease exists. Advantages
of UAVs include relatively low cost per flight and high
image detail, but the legal framework for their use in
agriculture remains under development.
Let¡¯s automate
Automatic guidance, whereby a GPS-based system
steers the tractor in a much more precise pattern than
the driver is capable of is a tremendous success story.
Safety concerns currently limit completely driverless
capability to smaller machines. Fully autonomous or
robotic field machines have begun to be employed
in small-scale high profit-margin agriculture such as
wine grapes, nursery plants and some fruits and
Breeding + sensors + robots
High-throughput plant phenotyping (HTPP) is an up-
and-coming precision agriculture technology at the in-
tersection of genetics, sensors and robotics. It is used
to develop new varieties or ¡°lines¡± of a crop to improve
characteristics such as nutritive content and drought
and pest tolerance. HTPP employs multiple sensors to
measure important physical characteristics of plants,
such as height; leaf number, size, shape, angle, color,
wilting; stalk thickness; number of fruiting positions.
These are examples of phenotypic traits, the physical
expression of what a plant¡¯s genes code for. Scientists
can compare these measurements to already-known
genetic markers for a particular plant variety.
The sensor combinations can very quickly measure
phenotypic traits on thousands of plants on a regu-
lar basis, enabling breeders and geneticists to decide
which varieties to include or exclude in further testing,
tremendously speeding up further research to improve
crops.
Agricultural production has come so far in even the
past couple decades that it¡¯s hard to imagine what it
will look like in a few more. But the pace of high-tech
innovations in agriculture is only increasing. Don¡¯t be
surprised if, 10 years from now, you drive down a rural
highway and see a very small helicopter flying over a
field, stopping to descend into the crop, use robotic
grippers to manipulate leaves, cameras and machine
vision to look for insects, and then rise back above the
crop canopy and head toward its next scouting loca-
tion. All with nary a human being in sight.
(by Alex Thomasson, Professor of Biological & Agricul-
tural Engineering at Texas A&M University:
CVMA member veterinarians to provide
more than 1,600 free wellness exams and
rabies vaccines to pets of families in need
The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association
(CVMA) is once again partnering with 9News to
offer 9PetCheck, an effort to help economically
disadvantaged pet owners get wellness examina-
tions and rabies vaccinations for their dog or cat.
CVMA member veterinarians want all pet owners
to understand the value of annual wellness ex-
aminations for their pet, as well as the impor-
tance of rabies vaccinations. With 70 veterinary
clinics participating across the state, offering
more than 1,600 free wellness exams and rabies
vaccinations (if appropriate) on April 11 and 12,
those in financial need will be able to access
veterinary care for their pet.
¡°9PetCheck is in its sixth year, and we are build-
ing on great success as we once again come
together to provide preventive care exams and
rabies vaccinations to pet owners in financial
need,¡± said Dr. Erin Epperly, President of CVMA.
¡°Last year, 9PetCheck saw over 1,000 communi-
ty members, with each one leaving a lasting im-
pression on everyone involved. If you or some-
one you know has a pet in need of a wellness
exam or rabies vaccination, but they are unable
to afford the cost of the appointment, this will be
a wonderful opportunity for them to access those
services with a CVMA member veterinarian.¡±
vegetables. Autonomous machines can replace people
performing tedious tasks, such as hand-harvesting
vegetables. They use sensor technologies, including
machine vision that can detect things like location and
size of stalks and leaves to inform their mechanical
processes. Japan is a trend leader in this area. Typi-
cally, agriculture is performed on smaller fields and
plots there, and the country is an innovator in robotics.
But autonomous machines are becoming more evident
in the US, particularly in California where much of the
country¡¯s specialty crops are grown.
The development of flying robots gives rise to the pos-
sibility that most field-crop scouting currently done by
humans could be replaced by UAVs with machine vision
and hand-like grippers. Many scouting tasks, such as
for insect pests, require someone to walk to distant
locations in a field, grasp plant leaves on representa-
tive plants and turn them over to see the presence or
absence of insects. Researchers are developing tech-
nologies to enable such flying robots to do this without
human involvement.
6th Annual 9PetCheck
theconversation.com/institutions/
texas-aandm-university
This article was originally published on The Con-
versation: theconversation.com/farmers-of-the-
future-will-utilize-drones-robots-and-gps-37739)
Just another day on the future farm?
image: Mauricio Lima www.flickr.com/photos/
minhocos/13950908853
The cab of a contemporary tractor is a lot more
complicated than it would have been even 20
years ago. image: United Soybean Board, CC BY