Robotics and drones are being used increasingly in agriculture
April 16, 2018
Bees are losing ground to colony collapse disorder, a worldwide die-off theoretically attributed to a variety of issues: pollution, pesticides, pathogens, fungicides, climate change, genetically modified crops, parasitic insects, malnutrition and more.
Regardless the cause, the effect presents a dire problem for agriculture. Reproduction of many crops including apples, almonds, blueberries, peaches and nuts depends on pollinators. Several bee species have already made the sad leap from productive hives to the endangered species list. Globally and in the U.S., vast classifications of foods could disappear with them should extinction occur. Research on the disorder continues while scientists pursue various methods of artificial pollination.
For example, pollen has been collected and spread by aerial applicators; some even applied by hand with paint brushes. Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology cross-pollinated Japanese lilies in 2017 using a 1.5-inch drone. The process employs a coating of horse hair and ionic sticky gel on the busy little metal device.
Ironically, that drone is similar to ones featured in the final episode of Netflix's Black Mirror. Although its Autonomous Drone Insects turned out to be secretly conducting government surveillance on citizens rather than implementing solutions for bee die-off, inspiration is inspiration regardless the source.
On March 8, 2018, Walmart applied for a patent (not yet approved) with the U.S. Patent Office for drone pollinators designed to fly from plant to plant, collecting pollen from one and depositing it on the next. Another drone would hover along behind to monitor the accuracy of the first one — sort of a supervisor drone.
But nail-biting worries about bees doing it or not doing it are sharing the stage with cutting-edge technologies for additional agricultural applications.
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Robotics are already being implemented in strawberry harvesting, fresh-fruit picking, the dairy industry, data mapping and seeding.
Autonomous tractors might soon become commonplace. Technology already allows a drone to communicate information about the exact nature and location of individual weeds in a field. The responding tractor, based on GPS-like systems, then knows exactly when, where and the proper amount of herbicide to apply rather than blindly dousing an entire field.
On April 4, 2018, an interactive presentation at Colorado State University, shared a broad overview of the future of farming in our technological society as described by presenters Raj Khosla and Tom McKinnon, PhD.
Khosla is a nationally and internationally known expert on precision agriculture and its many uses. He has generated many discoveries in that field, including innovative techniques now in use in Colorado, nationally and around the world. Quantifying variability of spatially diverse soils using satellite-based remote sensing to create management zones maximizes profits by reducing the use of inputs.
Khosla named the "five R's of precision agriculture: at the Right time; in the Right amount; at the Right place; use of the Right input; in the Right manner." These, he remarked, are the keys to the technique.
For example, he pointed to the past three years' corn prices, which have been down due to a product glut. Precision agriculture farms the data to add value rather than simply trying to produce more low-profit corn (and thereby adding to the glut). Application of nitrogen, potassium, etc. is tailor-made per parts of a field based on information collected by drone technology.
Khosla showed the audience a series of slides in discussion of CSU's ARDEC research farm's successes in precision agriculture. Massive amounts of drone-generated data per field have consistently and accurately predicted yields and lowered production costs, thereby increasing profit.
Professor and Assistant Dean Khosla, who has received many awards including being named the 2012 Jefferson Science Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences, has an extensive precision agriculture outreach program. He conducts field days and hands-on extension workshops; practices on-farm demonstration research and extension trials; uses state-of-the-art technologies and applications in crop production systems.
Seminar co-presenter was Tom McKinnon, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based company, Agribotix. The small company began in 2012, using drones to track a particular species of vulture. Now exclusively focusing on software products, Agribotix operates in 54 countries.
McKinnon explained drone usage in the variable application of water, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizer. He pointed out that, while data now comes from satellites and manned aircraft as well, only drones can fly under the clouds.
McKinnon further discussed pertinent topics such as the final data product, cost, safety, reliability and ease of use with drones (which can be either fixed-wing or multi-rotor). Fixed-wing drones provide larger area coverage and are crush tolerant. Multi-rotors offer vertical takeoffs/landings and faster setups.
McKinnon is excited about the future of drone technology, which he described as moving at light speed. Machine learning includes a corn stand product that will identify and count every corn plant in a field by use of data. Computers learn to identify desired crops vs. weeds.
"Anything an agronomist can see in a field can be taught to a computer to ID," he said.
McKinnon mentioned Blue River Technology, which has trained a computer to identify and "nail" only the weeds with herbicide in strawberry fields as the tractor moves along.
Khosla reminded the audience that the first moon landing occurred nearly 50 years ago, on July 21, 1969. The Apollo 11 computer used in that astounding feat of space exploration would be no match for even the Galaxy s6 phone, which is 4 billion times faster.
Drones in agriculture now offer farming similar technological advantages to those that most people hold in their hand and use throughout each day. These robotic solutions maximize data, lower input investment and increase profit. Some even offer a helping wing to busy little bees that struggle to survive. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.