Why the United Nations and World Economic Forum are banking on autonomous farming and agtech

Recently the United Nations hosted the COP15 Biodiversity summit in Canada. The loss of global biodiversity is a major concern for environmentalists and agricultural activities are often cited as one of the major causes for this. Large acreages and volumes of water are required to grow crops commercially and natural landscapes inevitably lose an element of their biodiversity when land comes under cultivation.

However, it is not a one sided view. Global organizations such as the UN and WEF recognize that modern society depends on growers to feed the world, and they need to be able to continue to do so. This is why the topics of food security and sustainable agriculture were high on the agenda at COP27, which was held in Egypt in November.

If the demand for food keeps growing with the global population, but resources such as land and water are becoming more scarce, growers need to find ways to become more efficient. This translates into increasing yields and the quality of crops, while reducing environmental impacts, such as emissions.

It’s a big ask, especially as growers are already under pressure from rising operational costs, labor and water shortages, and lower crop prices. But this is where it gets interesting. Rather than solutions being tied up in regulations and targets, the takeaway from COP27 is that the UN and WEF see agricultural technology as a key factor to achieving both food security and sustainability goals.

Precision agriculture and autonomous farming are recognized as key factors to help growers become more productive, and more efficient. It’s an attractive idea for growers, but what does it translate to on the ground?

Precision agriculture in high value crop growing

Technology is seen as the enabler that can help growers become more efficient by giving them greater visibility of their operations. Collecting and analyzing data is the starting point, and one of the clearest ways to identify opportunities to improve efficiency.

Smart sensors installed on equipment and machinery track what’s happening in each area of the growing operations. That data is then pulled together on a cloud based operations dashboard.

From this, clear targets can be set for different areas of operations including drilling down into specifics of how different pieces of equipment should operate to achieve greater efficiency. It’s the data that helps define what precision agriculture should look like and what outcomes it should achieve. The added benefit is that where there are environmental factors that need to be reported on, the data can support the planning and execution of this to ensure targets are met.

Here are a few examples:

Spray efficiency: Improving the efficiency of spraying activities through greater accuracy has multiple benefits. Environmentally there is a general trend to work towards reducing the volume of pesticide used in commercial crops. From a grower perspective, improving spray efficiency can help reduce operational costs.

Fieldin’s Auto-Spray is an autonomous solution offering that uses LiDAR technology to create a 3D image of the surroundings as the sprayer moves through the orchard. It is able to identify the size of the trees and canopy, where there are gaps between trees, and when the sprayer is making a turn at the end of a row. Based on this data the sprayer automatically turns on and off so that spray is only delivered where there are trees. The impact of this is significant, reducing the volume of spray used by up to 85%. Instead of a tank lasting just 4 rows, it can last up to 16 rows. Additionally the sprayer is able to cover 20% more ground in a shift as it has to stop less to refill.

Dust management: Careful planning and operating with greater precision can help reduce dust volumes while still maintaining harvest efficiency. This starts with knowing which roads have been covered with gravel or products like Dust-Down. Smart sensors installed on trucks and ATV’s working to lay road coverings enable managers to map covered routes and plan sweeping activities accordingly to reduce dust levels. Similarly smart sensors on equipment can monitor speeds and reduce the number of row passes required to carry out growing activities. According to research by the California Almond Board, reducing speed of harvesting equipment from 3 mph to 1.5 mph, can reduce dust volumes by 50%.

Speed management: Managing the speed at which vehicles and machinery operate helps to improve fuel efficiency and safety, reduces wear and tear and additional maintenance, and can reduce the carbon footprint of growing operations. Smart sensors can track if operators are moving too fast or too slowly through a block, and feed this information to the operations dashboard. With greater visibility on activities it becomes easier to correct speeds to optimize operating costs. A secondary benefit is that the data can be used to calculate CO2 emissions for each machine. This is valuable when reporting on ESG and sustainability efforts.

Optimize harvest activities: The ability to gather data from multiple machines operating in different blocks, helps growers track the accuracy and precision of harvesting activities. Every efficiency adds up, helping to continually manage operational costs while maintaining harvest yields and quality. This broad level of visibility across multiple activities is made possible with agricultural technology and it’s helping growers identify ways to make their growing operations more accurate and productive.

Improve labor efficiency: Aside from sustainability benefits, one of the reasons autonomous farming is being supported by the WEF is that it is seen to help address labor shortages and improve the efficiency of labor that is available. For high value crop growers data generated from agricultural technology can help facilitate planning, including allocating activities to workers with the right level of skills to maximize efficiency.

Takeaway: Sustainable agriculture requires data

Growers are faced with the need to use resources more efficiently, reduce CO2 emissions and environmental impacts, all while producing enough quality supply to meet market demand. Agricultural technology can provide the data needed to improve accuracy and efficiency across all growing activities so that growers can start to align with these broader expectations as described by global organizations.

While global issues are important, the real benefit is the impact to individual growers. Agricultural technology enables growers to gain insight into how to become more efficient. Data and autonomous farming are the future of growing and being able to leverage these technologies is key to continually improving productivity.

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