The latest technology tools have brought about radical changes in farming and agriculture. Innovations used today such as GPS, RFID, 3D laser ranging, vision sensing and robotics are allowing farmers and agri – businesses to implement techniques that yield better crops, more productive livestock, and improved processes.
RFID tags are common throughout retail stores and supermarkets. Now farmers are using them to track livestock. In past years, ear tags made of rubber or metal were the most common method for identifying livestock, but after the number wears off, the tag is rendered useless. RFID tags for livestock are equipped with a quarter-inch microchip that contains a unique number. A reader is pointed at the electronic tag and it scans the number into a handheld PLC or sends the information back to a computer.
Because of this scanning process, livestock can be evaluated and worked with all in one step, reducing communication and treatment mistakes while verifying an animal’s identification. The RFID readers can also be attached to self-dispensing feeders to control the animal’s feed intake and mounted on scales to record weight gains or losses. Cows that may be developing ketosis – a common disease that affects the animal – tend to eat less. Tracking them can keep milk products from diseased cows off store shelves.
Robotic milkers have been around for some time and continue to make improvements with the use of 3D vision technology. Less human labor is required and the robotic system can track each cow’s production, milking frequency, and milk quality.
Cows quickly learn the automated milking system. As the cow enters the robotic milker, pellets drop into a feeding chute. As the cows eat, the robotic arm washes the udder and places each cup on a teat. A 3D vision camera is used to identify the distance of the cow, depth of the utter and capture details about the cow during the milking process. The cups automatically drop once the cow is milked. The robotic milker tests the milk for temperature, color and conductivity.
The success of 3D technology in the milking process has led to using GPS technology to manage crops and orchards. GPS based applications are now being used for farm planning, field mapping, soil sampling, yield mapping and tractor guidance.
Where farmers may have once treated their fields uniformly, they are now seeing benefits of using GPS to manage their fields according to ground conditions. More precise applications of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers produce higher yields, reduce expenses, and create a more environmentally friendly farm. GPS also allows farmers to work during low visibility field conditions such as rain, dust, fog and darkness.
GPS is also responsible for the latest innovation being introduced to farms: the autonomous robotic tractor.
Autonomous vehicles have proved able to cope with complex outdoor environments and have gained recognition with the US DARPA urban grant challenge in which a series of races for autonomous cars travel through deserts and urban streets.
“If you can deal with an off-road environment you have never seen before, then you’re well-equipped for agriculture,” says Tony Stentz, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.
Stentz believes that in the next few years we will see rapid changes in what robots can practically and affordably offer farmers. But while having robots navigate their way through groves of trees is one thing, getting them to read a crop is another matter.
Stentz is experimenting with sending autonomous mobile robots along the rows of a Florida orange grove. GPS is used for tractor guidance while a 3D laser ranging scanner is used for navigation and measurement. The 3D laser scanner can capture detailed measures of every tree’s foliage and even count the oranges they bear.
Stentz’s Carnegie Mellon colleague Sanjiv Singh has also modified an “orchard platform” that is an autonomous vehicle that drives without human control along lines of trees carrying workers aloft to reach high fruit.
Tree-reading machines could record data more often and more thoroughly than humans, providing early warnings of disease and more accurate yield predictions. This could help make the spraying of chemicals more targeted and efficient.
“Instead of spraying at one constant rate, we can use [a robot-built] map to work out how to put down the minimal amount of chemical,” Stentz says. “Robots that navigate using 3D laser ranging can also work at night, when more insects are active and winds are less strong,” he adds.
As more technology tools are introduced, the farming industry is welcoming the innovations to help reduce costs as well as increase profits.
Source: Tom Simonite, New Scientist Magazine