The Internet of Farms
Farming is changing. But too often the perspective on how it is changing comes from outside the industry. Luda’s viewpoint is that of farmers. We can’t help it. Our technology is developed, by farmers and for farmers. How our technology will benefit farmers is the starting point of all our product development. But we also spend a lot of time thinking about how new technology, ours and other companies’, contributes to change in agriculture.
Here is our end-of-year look at the direction of change in the farming profession.
Four trends on the farm
More sensors and more data
Farm sensors are becoming more advanced and less costly. They produce ever more data and with a lower price the farmer can now use more of them. Precision farming has been leading the way in creating sensors that generate useable data such as soil humidity, pest frequency, and nitrogen levels. Machine mounted sensors can measure nitrogen levels from the sprayer or yield from the combine, and together with the tractor GPS produce detailed crop maps.
Farmers generally require higher precision than GPS offers. GPS precision is 5 meters but farmers using GPS require centimetre-precision to accurately till, plant, spray, and harvest their fields. RTK GPS, which uses fixed receivers together with tractor GPS receivers solve this problem but come at a considerable cost. New positioning systems, such as the European Galileo satellite navigation system will improve accuracy without the need for expensive radio equipment.
Fixed, in-field sensors have often been of more use in gardening than professional farming. Several new fixed, in-field sensors, such as Pulsepod from Arable Labs Inc., are changing this. The Climate Corporation (subsidiary of Monsanto) has recently opened their FieldView platform to hardware manufacturers with the aim of creating the first in-field sensor network.
Using data to make farm decisions
Software has come a long was in the last couple of years. From precision agriculture software to dedicated farming ERPs, farmers now have the ability to control every cost and source of income on their farms. Dedicated precision agriculture software produces topographical maps of incredible detail that includes yield, soil moisture, nitrogen levels, planting performance, etc. This technology solves the problem of “not knowing what the problem is” and introduces a new one: how to interpret and make decisions based on all the available data.
Crop farming is not the only area where big data is making a big impact. Farmeron is aiming to help dairy farmers produce more data and make better informed decisions. Porphyrio is doing the same for poultry farmers.
Equipment, manpower, and climate are the three main bottlenecks in any farm. One only has to go through a single harvest to know that they are not theoretical. Weather dictates when we can harvest, and equipment and manpower dictate how fast we can get the harvest safely to silo. Remote control allows the farmer to eliminate logistics out of some tasks. With a camera in the barn and a sensor in the diesel tank the farmer no longer has to leave the combine cab to check on cows or the amount of diesel left in the tanks. It is all accessible from a smartphone or a tablet. Add to that the ability to remotely turn equipment such as feed and milking robots, water pumps and electric fences, and the smartphone can become one of the most important used tools on the farm.
Remote control also extends to farm machinery. GPS guided tractors capable of driving themselves, supervised or unsupervised (follow technology, auto-steer), have been on the market for several years. John Deere, Fendt, and Case IH are leading tractor manufacturers that have pioneered autonomy of the tractor. The driverless tractor is here, but like self-driving cars we are still a few years away from having a range of options for fully autonomous tractors. During 2016 Case IH took the step of removing the cab entirely from their concept tractor, and other concept vehicles such as ATC’s “Spirit” have gone further in rethinking the design of the new generation of tractors. Most new tractors can be purchased with GPS and auto-steer, and several companies can do retro-fitting of GPS guidance systems on older machines. Implement manufacturers are also getting in the game. Kinze has been developing its autonomous harvest system that removes the need for an operator in the grain cart tractor.
The Internet of Farms (IoF)
The Internet of Farms is a collective name for internet-connected devices operating on the farm. From simple connected switches to advanced soil sensors, almost every new sensor launched today has the capability to be connected to the internet. This is farming 4.0 applied to the real world of farmers.
Interoperability: working together is better
Wouldn’t it be great if your diesel tank sensor could tell your phone to order more fuel? Or if your weather station could tell your autonomous sprayers to stop spraying when it looks like it’s going to rain? Key to making IoF technologies work for farmers will be to standardize the communication between them the same way that the ISOBUS standardized communication between implement and tractor. The internet already comes with a full set of communication standards and the cheapest option for manufacturers is most often to implement these standards.
Same hardware, better software
Using standardized internet technology to communicate between IoF devices opens the field to developers of software. This is great for farmers who can opt for the software that suits them best and pick sensors and controllers that fit. IoF technology will not lock the farmer into only using devices from a single manufacturer. Sensors and controllers will connect to a central software in the same way that implements of different brands can connect to the same tractor.
Smarter sensors and smarter apps
The challenges facing designers of IoF devices are similar to those facing developers of devices for homes, offices, and the more general Internet of Things. More actors, cheaper electronics, and sharing of solutions and experiences has meant that we continue to get better sensors, apps, and applications. Lower costs and better designs remove barriers to adopt new technology.
Could smaller be better?
Tractors and implements have grown larger in part since workforce does not scale as easily as farm size. It’s often be easier to buy or lease new acreage than it is to find and employ skilled farm labour. A larger tractor enables the farmer to use larger implements and so work larger farms.
From manual labour, to animal power and on to ever larger tractors, the major farm implements have all been centred around the farmer or operator. But with tractors growing more autonomous, the need for an operator removed, a new question arises: do we need tractors anymore?
In Project Mars, Fendt together with the University of Applied Sciences in Ulm, Germany, have looked at these two perspectives. They considered whether “more machines” was a viable option to “bigger machines”, and developed a farm implement concept that replaces a single large tractor with a swarm of smaller autonomous machines controlled by a central software.
The role of the farmer
In Luda.Farm’s vision, technology takes some of the load off and helps farmers cope with less personnel on the farm. We believe that new information technology for farmers should be based on a platform that farmers already have access to: the smartphone. We believe that technology should deliver actionable information, clearly presented, and always accessible, right there in your pocket.
New information systems for farms should be modular – giving the farmer the choice of how big or small a system to get – and they should be reasonably priced.
Like every profession, the modern farmer uses a lot more technology than before. Farmers have a long history of adapting new technology, and unlike other professions, farming has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to technological disruption. This is in large part due to the fact that the basic facts of farming have not changed: fair weather, good soil, and knowledge.
So, while the tools evolve the role of the farmer is unlikely to change. The farmer will remain dependent on his or her technical skill and knowledge of the land. Farmers across the world will, as they always have, remain the ultimate stewards of the land.
Ludvig Brost – CEO Luda.Farm