Precision Farming – Drones, Advanced Robotics and Automation

How the agricultural sector is embracing technology

Nestled in the picturesque Cotswolds of Southern England is August Farms, a family-owned business with a seventy-year legacy. The farm’s owner, Nick August, has been called one of the most technologically advanced farmers in the world, and uses tech from drones to automated systems. The use of innovative methods for agriculture, broadly referred to as Precision Farming uses satellite information to deliver accurate vehicle location for the precise application of inputs like seeds, sprays and fertiliser. According to Nick, Precision Farming is about driving down cost production, improving input usage and creating a cleaner environment. Through conducting controlled trials on wheat, for instance, Nick can make predictions about other crops and improve the entire efficiency of the farm.

As a farmer, I’m trying to bring together an awful lot of science which is laboratory-based, theoretical and not adapted to agriculture, and use it in an inconsistent environment. We’re taking science out of the laboratory and putting it in the field to optimise our fertiliser and pesticide usage. We use the accuracy of a steering system to control the automated applicator.”

Although he doesn’t fully agree that agriculture has been overlooked as an industry which could benefit from innovation, he is surprised at the lack of awareness of the scope of technology within farming.

“Agriculture is not overlooked, but there hasn’t been that level of awareness,” he says. “Other industries are ahead because of their controlled environments and their access to high computing power. I was of the perception that agriculture was the ‘poor cousin’, in so far as we pick up bits of tech from different sources and we try and make it work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t’. Such is the structure of a small business, we can try things and adapt systems until they do work, and respond to innovation very quickly.”

The importance of data

We hear the word more and more every day, but how do farmers collect and use data? One of the ways August Farms does this is via drones powered by Android. However, Nick says that it can be a long process.

“Cropping is seasonal, and in rotation so it might take years to gain useful information. Gathering good yield data takes over two years due to the crop rotation of wheat.”

But once he has that data, Nick then has an idea of the potential output for every square meter of the farm.

“This helps us economically, but it is very weather dependent, so you want several different scenarios. For example, the weather might be similar to where we were five years ago and we know the outcome because we’ve got that information. A decade ago, yield data had almost become redundant, but now it’s considered as vital.”

The employment angle

Employment is always a hot topic and nowhere more so than in the agricultural sector. Will incorporating technology further change how farm-owners choose their staff?

“There are people who are very good at operating machines but aren’t so computer literate. There is a generational thing there… The 50-somethings can have a real problem setting up tech stuff, but youngsters with smartphones don’t.”

It’s not just about employing people who can use smartphones. It’s about addressing a resistance to technology which exists throughout the generations. Nick jokes about operators browsing social media instead of paying attention to automated machinery, but admits that it can be frustrating.

“It’s not just about having the technology, it’s about having the mind set to improve. The point is to improve the efficiency of the machines in the fields, to record what we’re doing and reduce pollution.”

Innovative technology is set to cause even more disruption to traditional labour patterns as agriculture looks to methods such as robotics. And with such a prominent migrant presence, recent political developments are bound to have an impact.

“We just won’t get the migrant seasonal labour force. Technology and automation will come into that – necessity is the root of all invention. If we’ve lost freely available labour, automation will come into the system.”

With increasing development into autonomous vehicles, it’s not hard to imagine driverless tractors. Nick already uses automated machines, but doesn’t think they could fully replace operators.

“These systems can’t account for every eventuality. There might be a big block in the field, or a walker with a dog… All of these scenarios are restraining the advance of driverless technology within agriculture.”

Creating sustainability

It’s clear that Nick genuinely cares about conservation, and encourages environmental awareness.

“Sustainability is hugely important to me. We’re trying to be more conservation-friendly by using technology.”

He encourages others to follow his lead for the improvement of the industry itself, but also of society. One of his recent goals was to improve water conservation and avoid saturating the land.

“If we don’t reduce the amount of field runoff, which causes flooding, there will be a continuing cost to dredge rivers. We need to be cleverer about how we retain water through conservation and culture. In essence, as a farmer, it’s a case of needing to retain that rainfall in my control for growing crops. We need to regenerate the environment.”

The future of agricultural technology

There have been a number of setbacks to the adoption of technology within agriculture, from general safety issues to a lack of computing power. However, according to Nick, these problems can be overcome.

“Robotics in agriculture will certainly be widespread within the next decade or so. With lightweight machines, you can have a physical barrier around the working environment… But there isn’t going to be any fence that can stop a 40 tonne machine from charging off. The safety aspect is a concern, but colleges and universities are looking at automated systems to be adapted to working in confined environments, like lawnmowers for example.”

As the availability of computing power improves, the information that farmers like Nick have collected for years has become incredibly valuable.

“In the past, we produced low resolution maps with the ability to compute only 1 or 2 layers at a time. The speed of computers was so slow that we couldn’t manage that data efficiently. Now many layers of spatial data can be merged to calculate a scenario.”

Now this has changes, the advance of Precision Farming seems to be reliant on adoption by more farmers. Internet of Things technology is already helping asparagus farmers to keep track of the temperature of their soil, but at the moment this application is very niche. As you might expect, Nick encourages the use of connectivity.

“Considering the amount of data we’re starting to generate, connectivity is important,” he says. “For instance, our drones take 300 pictures of a field of 10 hectares. Bunging 300 of those down the internet for remote processing causes stagnation. We need smarter systems to filter rubbish data out of all of the data that we’re sending.”

With drones, advanced robotics and automation all shaping up to further change the way that farmers do business, agriculture now has the computing power (and the willingness of farmers like Nick August) to use innovation to get better results. Despite a slow start, Nick is optimistic that the industry will soon be in a position to make the most of technology.

“There is a quantum leap coming,” he says.

We would like to hear about your own experiences and thoughts on the use of technology within agriculture. Is there a quantum leap coming? How can farmers use new technology to continue to improve the efficiency of their farms? Will automated machines pose an immediate challenge to farm labourers? Let us know.