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The use of Technology in Farming

By: Edson DaSilva
Project Engineer

11th June 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering » The use of Technology in Farming

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.
After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

For more information on sustainable technology see our new Ecotech market here: https://www.plextek.com/markets/ecotech/

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.

After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

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