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Steam engines to software – the farming revolution

Around 40,000 years ago humankind in modern day Egypt and Israel made the first transition from nomadic hunting & gathering communities to agriculture and settlement. Farming techniques changed very little until about 1700 when an agriculture revolution took place leading to a large increase in the production of crops which came about because of the final destruction of medieval institutions and new techniques of production together with new crops such as corn and potatoes which produced a very large yield.

In the 1850’s, the industrial revolution introduced new mechanized methods such as the use of new farm implements combined with crop rotation, manure and better soil preparation, leading to a steady increase of crop yield in Europe, and the advent of steam power brought a whole new dimension to the production of crops.

In the 1960s, we experienced what was known as the ‘Green Revolution’ when scientists such as Dr. Norman Borlang were able to engineer crops with new irrigation and management techniques to ensure their longevity and high yield.

More recently we are seeing the introduction of what may well be the largest advances in agricultural technology, the ‘Smart Farm’. Sensors, UAVs and big data are no longer limited to defence and aerospace companies; they are finding their way into the farming world as well.  Solutions that allow farmers and the agriculture industry to take full advantage of today’s technology to optimise their operations retain economic viability and protect the planet.

Luciad Smart Farming
Smart Farming: Acreage Overview

Smart Farming is more than just fitting GPS trackers to tractors and monitoring seed use. It is about a fully integrated agricultural process that includes the use of UAV technology with multispectral video cameras that can indicate nitrate concentration requirements and pesticide needs. It is the incorporation of long term meteorological data into the planting schedule and the real time connection of farm workers. Using geo-fencing, farmers are now able to concentrate on each individual plot in the farm where they can immediately see information regarding that piece of land: crop, humidity level, real-time work taking place in the field, phytosanitary health of the plants, etc. By using this smart farming technology, farmers can optimize resources and field operations in real-time by collecting and analysing various data such as field samples, aerial imagery and weather predictions. Farmers can understand which activities should be scheduled at which time. The application can analyse historical data to reveal why certain fields or crops did not perform as expected. It also integrates with ERP processes to manage stock and to interact with subcontractors.

Luciad smart farming technology
Smart Farming: Field Analytics

Information is streamed back to the platform either by sensors physically installed on the land such as humidity sensors together with human actions such as pest or fungus detection, sent back through a mobile device where predictive analysis allows the system to calculate the future impact on the fields of weather events. The farmer can then choose where and when to fertilize and what concentration of nitrates to use (depending on the soil analysis: e.g. chalky soils will need more fertilizer than argillaceous ones). He can water the fields with the exact amount of water needed by the crop, thus allowing precious saving in drought areas. Finally, he can spray pesticides only on those plots that really need it and not as a global preemptive action on all the fields as has been historically done.

The impacts of this new Geospatial technology are numerous: lower water consumption, lower and optimal fertilizer consumption, lower and targeted pesticide usage which all makes not only economic sense but of course also makes ecological sense.

Once a task needing to be done has been identified by the system, the farmer can automatically dispatch it to staff working in his fields. It can be his own network of farm workers or he can allocate a sub-contractor whose work he can track in real time.  Also, from an analytical point, the farmer receives valuable insights into the full profitability of each field. The costs and profit of each individual field can be calculated and visualized on the fly, even per square meter, based upon the data from the field and the data from the tractor.

Smart Farming represents one of the biggest steps forward in agricultural science since the move to organised farming in 1700 and it is more than simply better economics for First World farmers because as was said by Giza Mdoe on the effects of smart agriculture,

“Agricultural growth is a proven driver of poverty reduction. When agriculture stimulates growth … the growth is twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth based in other sectors.”