This Article is the final part of a 3 part series looking at the trends in global agriculture. Click here to find Parts 1 and 2.
As we’re reaching the limits of what can be achieved with current farming methods, eyes turn to new, emergent technologies to improve efficiency, productivity, and output. In the previous parts of this blog series, we looked at the trends of agricultural technology in the past, and then what pressures are driving the current international boom in agritech, known as the 4th agricultural revolution.
In this final part we will look at what technologies are now being developed and deployed to meet these growing pressures, and where this might be taking us in the future. As with previous agricultural revolutions, there is likely to be a step change in technology across 4 key areas:
- crop types and breeding
- cultivation methods
- human productivity multipliers
- business resource management
Crop types and breeding are a fascinating topic, and an area that is accelerating rapidly as genetic engineering and gene editing technologies advance. This allows development of new crop types to increase yield and nutritional value, be effective in more varied and extreme climates, use resources more efficiently, and have more pest and disease resistance. There are certainly much better people than me to cover this topic though, so we will focus here on cultivation, productivity and management technologies, using orchard crops as a case study.
Cultivation Methods – Precision and Efficiency
The first type of technology that is disrupting crop production is remote sensing. Over the past two decades, the number of sensors in the world have increased exponentially, with some experts predicting a trillion sensors worldwide by 2025. Agriculture is no different, with a plethora of new sensor technologies entering the market and changing the way that we grow crops across the industry.
There is now data available from satellites, aircrafts, drones, ground-based systems, infield sensors and even phone cameras. These sources can gather imagery (including spectra far beyond what human eyes can detect), weather data, soil data, a wide range of plant data, chemical data, high accuracy geospatial data… the list is almost endless. It is now possible, and even commercially viable, to know the condition of every tree in an orchard and what conditions it has been exposed to throughout the season.
This level of granular insights allows for much more precise understanding of an orchard’s development, and informs precision interventions to optimise performance. New data points are available regularly, and through digitalisation these can be accessed and assessed by growers at a moment’s notice. Increasing connectivity means that insights can be shared and decisions can be made in concert with agronomists and advisors very rapidly, or more specific data gathered if necessary.
This all enables precision interventions to provide every individual crop with the resources it needs, and manage it to optimise production. In its simplest form, improved precision can be realised through decision making; intentionally irrigating, spraying or intervening more accurately. However, more and more systems are becoming available to enable greater precision, such as precision irrigation networks controlled by pressure pulsing, precision sprayers targeting the application of agrichemicals for each plant, and even self-launching UGV or UAVs that can make interventions to specific crops without the need for human involvement. In some parts of the industry, crops are being moved into controlled environments to reduce the variability and increase the options for sensing and interventions, although this technique appears unlikely to be viable for most fruit crops for a long time to come.
As the demand for food and the pressures on growers are both increasing, it is critical that we develop and deploy systems to gather up-to-date information based on the current conditions of the orchards and the rapidly changing environmental conditions. This needs to quickly and easily interface with farm management systems, growers decision making processes and precision intervention technologies. Outfield has this front and centre of our strategy, with rapidly deployable drone systems gathering on demand information about orchards, that help growers be more precise to use less resources, improve decision making to optimise outputs, and get more fruit on grade to reduce waste and the environmental impact of each viable apple.
Human Productivity Multipliers – From Mechanical Muscles to Mechanical Minds
In the mid-20th century, growers augmented human labour with mechanical labour. The power of a tractor, a combine, or a fruit packing system eclipses the efforts of an individual human. Even today though, these tools only compliment human effort, and significant human effort is still required for complex manual tasks and operation of machinery. Although robotic harvesters are under development, they are many years away from replacing humans in the field.
In the 2020’s, the equivalent of this is AI and Machine Learning driven decision support systems. No longer are we just complementing human mechanical power, but now also replacing human brain power for simple repetitive tasks, such as automated steering of vehicles around an orchard or the robotic assessment of fruit grade. Machine thinking is becoming ever-more integrated with the decision making process, with algorithms now identifying the number of blossoms on every tree, the fruit in the orchard, and growth of the trees, and even suggesting the appropriate intervention to make.
Using the data gathered by the systems described above, self-driving vehicles will soon be able to deploy resources in an orchard, with only the approval or modification of decisions needed from the grower. The capability is already there for a hands free orchard up till harvest, a project Outfield is in early discussions to prove this in a live orchard. The data available can also be used to make “digital twins” of the orchards, allowing for virtual monitoring, experiments and forecasting of these complex live systems we are trying to manage. With AI systems learning every year with data from hundreds of thousands of orchards, and no biases or prejudices, it is only a matter of time before the algorithmic decisions will outperform the human ones in some areas.
Outfield is in front of this technology to improve human productivity, responding to our growers concerns about farm labour availability. Farm labour is a huge problem in the industry, not just in the UK but around the world. Finding young people who want to enter this incredibly demanding space, also known for low margins and high risk, is increasingly difficult.
Improving on-farm decision making also improves efficiency, which is critical for balancing the world’s resources with our food demands. Outfield’s high resolution time-series data already allows for improved decision making with lower effort, but where this technology can go in the future is truly staggering.
Business Resource Management – The Business of Farm Data
The impact of increasing technology, data and understanding from primary production won’t be limited to the farm. As with previously agricultural revolutions, the supply chain and eventually our lives in general will be affected by this revolution.
There is a convergence of new technologies at the centre of this revolution, including:
- Sensing technology allowing for more data to be gather
- Precision technology allowing for greater control of production
- Machine learning technology allowing for deeper insights into production
- AI technology allowing for more understanding and prediction
- Communications technology facilitation faster transmission of information and access to new resources
- Cloud computing technology allowing for processing and analysis centrally
The symbiosis from combining these technologies are driving rapid advancement in the capabilities of agriculture. All of these are being used by Outfield to unlock the potential of farm data. Growers on our systems are already improving decision making and precision, and we are also now informing yield forecasts far in advance of harvest. This allows fruit growers and marketing desks to pre-sell fruit on forward contracts with confidence, increasing the value and amount sold whilst reducing waste. Improved planning of logistics reduces GHG emissions and stress on the supply chain.
As adoption of our system increases , these same technologies can inform the global supply chain much more fundamentally by forecasting regional yields and allowing shipping of the right fruit to the right places. This can also create a fairer, more transparent marketplace, both for fruit sales and also resource purchasing.
Going further, the insurance sector is already interested in using up to date “parametric” data from growers to inform insurance premiums and risk management, especially in regions where the changing climate is making crop yields unpredictable. Even beyond that, there is great potential for this technology to inform strategic decisions about the planting of crops to manage the changing climate – as apple orchards are planted for 15-20 years, knowing how the climate is affecting production could be crucial to future production decisions.
These are all projects in Outfield’s pipeline, and this is only looking at what is possible with our technology. It seems incredibly likely that the future of agriculture will be very different from what it is today.
The Big Questions
In the first part of this blog series we posed a few questions, and perhaps we now have enough information to try and answer some.
How do we balance the short term need for food security with the mid- and long-term environmental pressures of high intensity production?
This is a huge topic, but one theme that we’ve seen is that focussing on efficiency allows us to address both of these problems simultaneously. There are some huge improvements in efficiency that can be made if the promises of new technologies are realised, and we sincerely hope that is the case. Both producing enough food and protecting the environment are critical to the future of our species.
How do we best manage the breakneck pace of convergent and disruptive technologies on-farm to make sure we keep up without being swept up?
Although this is a very tricky challenge, the core of it seems to be addressing problems that are on-farm now, impacting the bottom line for growers and the supply chain from day one. Whilst tech companies need to be thinking about the bold future of technology, and it is always fantastic to work with growers who share in the vision, we don’t believe in “impact or business”. A solution that works for growers now must make good business sense AND have a positive impact, and growers can feel free to make a commercial decision about disruptive technology to avoid being swept up.
Please please may the industry continue to be enthusiastic, critical, and given of their time and expertise, but the business risk should sit with the investors and tech companies.
How does the current industry, already under great strain in many areas, manage the transition to new techniques, technologies and structures?
We are still learning about this as an industry, however the three areas that we’ve focussed on at Outfield are:
- Impacting the bottom line
- Saving time
- Lowering the barriers to adoption
By doing so, we hope to lessen the strains we hear from our partners and clients whilst enabling new technologies and increasing the potential for future advances. We also strongly believe that no single solution is going to be the silver bullet for the industry, and collaboration throughout the supply chain is crucial for easing adoption and managing this transition. There is some talk already about adopting standards for data communication in the industry, and we are very supportive of this!
Over to you!
We’ve only scratched the surface of this enormous topic here, and we certainly don’t have all the answers, so if you’ve read this far we would love to hear from you about where you see the future of fruit farming. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org