Precision agriculture encompasses many different technologies related to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). The following are some of the most widely used and important technologies.
Enhanced soil and crop sensing technology is perhaps the most integral aspect of PA development. These sensors—which include optical, mechanical, and electrochemical sensors, among other types—can be used to control variable-rate, location-specific (when paired with GPS; see below) application of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticide, leading to greater efficiency and less waste. Examples include simple combine-mounted yield monitors in use since the 1990s, which measure crop yield during harvesting and are the most widely adopted PA technology. More advanced electrochemical sensors can provide information on soil nutrient levels and pH, while dielectric sensors can measure moisture levels in the soil. In combination with other tools discussed below, these sensors allow farmers to have detailed insight and control over the state of their farm.
The global positioning system (GPS) is a US-owned satellite system that provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing services. GPS has been paired with several other PA technologies and are among the most widely adopted. For example, GPS is used to guide autonomous technologies such as UAS and auto-steering combines and tractors. Perhaps most importantly, GPS is used in combination with soil and yield monitors to develop precise maps that can be used to customize crop management across and within fields. Such GPS-enabled soil and yield mapping is estimated to have the largest economic impact among PA technologies.
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as “drones,” are defined by statute (14 CFR 1.1) as any “aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.” UAS are typically used by farmers to take multispectral (both visible and infrared light) images of their fields from the air. These images can then be stitched together into a high-resolution map to monitor the fields and guide operations, among other uses. UAS-gathered imagery generally provides superior quality at a lower cost than alternative methods, such as using satellites or manned aircraft flights. Some UAS can follow pre-programmed paths, flying from takeoff to landing and controlling the onboard camera for optimal image-taking.
Agricultural robot development is advancing rapidly thanks to large-scale investment from both established agricultural companies as well as new, technically oriented market entrants. These robots could serve a diverse array of functions on modern farms, helping to improve efficiency and productivity compared to traditional, manual methods. Examples include cow-milking robots, which are touted as being better for cows by lowering their stress and improving longevity. Many robots capitalize on recent advances in computer vision, allowing selective detection of both weeds for removal and fresh fruits for picking. While robot dexterity still lags behind human levels, recent advances suggest that this will change in the near future, potentially revolutionizing both the agricultural industry and many others as well.