The Future of Farming

Ag-Tech is not the new farmer, but it is the farmer’s best friend.

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Sometimes very intelligent people get things very, very wrong. Whether it’s a symptom of a lack of vision, understanding or belief; or just pure unadulterated fear of what could be, we can’t be sure. What we can be sure of is that when it comes to technology, if you think it impossible, you’re probably wrong.

No one would want a computer at home.

Guess who said the following: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Your grandfather, maybe? No, that was Thomas Watson, president of IBM back in 1943. How about: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." This one could only be your great aunt Regina, right? Once again, no, it’s Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation. Last but not least, in 1995, Robert Metcalfe, the creator of Ethernet, predicted that, "…the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse." Oh, how wrong could they be. 

Times are a-changing.

Today, we live in a completely new state of wonder. Where apps control our every movement. Where exercise - no, life - has been gamified and our phones do all our shopping for us. We have young and old chasing invisible creatures down city streets, we find husbands and wives with a swipe to the right. We have robots. We can print medication and food, and virtual reality is sometimes more real than real life. 

Clifford Stoll, American astronomer, author and teacher once said that “…no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” While he clearly read his tea leaves incorrectly, what would he say about farming? Could technology ever replace the hands, the mind, the experience, and the instinct of a farmer?

Farming: 2050.

As per usual, Jaco wakes up 5 minutes before his alarm goes off. He checks his watch: 5:55AM, 1 October 2050. While his personal robot makes his coffee, a heads-up display updates him on what has happened over night: A new outbreak of Thrips was detected on 50 citrus trees in Orchard B, and his drone is in the process of spraying the problem. Another flight has been scheduled for tomorrow to monitor the impact of the treatment. Jaco then gets on with drinking his coffee. It’s perfect, just like it is every day, because his robot scanned his mood and energy-levels to get it just right. 

What is Ag-Tech?

As the Internet (which hasn’t yet shut down, sorry Clifford) tells us, “Ag-tech is the use of technology in agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture with the aim of improving yield, efficiency, and profitability. Ag-tech can be products, services or applications derived from agriculture that improve various input/output processes.” 

Is this really coming? How far is it away?

James Paterson, co-founder of Aerobotics, grew up on a fruit farm in the Clanwilliam area, where his family still farm, then went on to study Aeronautical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence at MIT in the USA. “I believe in using new technology to improve agriculture and thus, I started Aerobotics to provide actionable drone and satellite data to farmers. I’ll get to what this means to me, and to you, a bit later, but the point is that Ag-tech is not far away, it’s already here.”

Replacing the farmer.

Ag-tech is not what the CD is to the floppy disc, nor what the smart phone is to the landline. You can relax, farmers are not being replaced. 

As farmers, we all know the benefit of being out in the field, checking up on our production and monitoring irrigation, pests and diseases. Just like Jaco’s personal coffee-making robot, we know our farms better than anyone else. But we also know that as input costs are rising and the scale of farming is getting bigger in order to maintain profitability. At this scale, traditional methods of monitoring production become difficult to impossible. To add to this, exporters are becoming stricter on tracking the way we manage our farms, from input to spray records and checking residuals.

This is where agricultural technology comes in. And it’s here to help. The industry is expanding rapidly - last year R300 billion was invested into new agricultural technology companies worldwide, aiming to improve all sectors of the industry.

Introducing Aerobotics.

Aerobotics focusses on aerial data-analytics to change how farmers manage their crops, to increase yield and reduce waste, loss and of course, expenses. 

Tim Willis, CFO and Head of Growth at Aerobotics, explains further “Farmers have a real struggle in terms of managing their overall farm. You're looking at farms that are hundreds of hectares big, and some farmers can't get through their entire farm in three days… If they don't have technology, they have to walk around or drive around their farm trying to identify areas that could be potentially mismanaged, and employ large scouting teams to work in their farm. With our technology, they're able to basically manage their farm from their office.

How does it work? 

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“Aerobotics effectively takes aerial images of mainly agricultural areas. We collect those images using drones and satellites and potentially even aeroplanes.” Willis continues. “We explore how technology can add significant value by augmenting farmers across the world to increase their yields, while becoming more efficient at the same time… this can have (an affect) across the supply chain, and on how other, non-farming related industries can be served uniquely as a by-product of the intelligence gained.”

The Aerobotics smart scouting platform helps farmers identify pests and diseases in the tree crop space before it’s too late. Farmers are seeing the value, with 40% of the South African macadamia nut industry, 20% of the country’s citrus growers, and 170,000 hectares of vineyards using the software already. Farming is a risky business with pests and disease often reducing a farmer’s yield. The platform combines weekly satellite data, automated drone scouting and in-field scouting data to identify and track every tree on the farm, detecting problems early and guiding farmers to the location of the threat. 

Once the drone images are captured, machine-learning automatically detects pest and disease problems and alerts the farmer to check the data on the ground and to diagnose specific problems. By bringing farmer validation into the loop, Aerobotics gets smarter all the time, benefitting all the growers on the platform.

The farmer’s needs are at the centre of everything that Aerobotics does. Having personal experience in the industry and continuously talking to and working with farmers to find out what will benefit them in the short-, medium-, and long-term, the Aerobotics team are fully focussed on offering a product that is ever-evolving to the changing needs of the industry.

What does this mean for the future?

James Paterson continues, “If we look at the overall picture of the world, obviously food's going to be a scare resource. I don't think we're going to solve that by ourselves, but we're definitely going to be a player in the combination of solutions that solves that problem.

“Our aim is to actually be able to predict what your yield will be, based off our images. If we can do that, then we have a lot of forward looking information which is extremely useful, not only to farmers, but also to people down the value chain.

“We’re thinking in outcomes, not in outputs. Aerobotics started around the idea that “it was cool to fly a drone over a farm”, but realized quickly that “without the software to actually use, it was going to be difficult to commercialize. In other words, we started with the what: a more efficient way to spot yield issues, i.e. a photo. We then realized it was answering the why that leads us to create remarkable value, i.e. predict yield and help increase yield quality. 

This what to why increased an estimated 10% value impact to a potential 10x value impact. It’s also created a by-product with which Aerobotics will soon drive value to other markets, providing qualitative insights to help retailers anticipate issues in their supply chain planning, weeks if not months in advance, or providing key data to insurance companies to aid the creation of new, disruptive business models to insure farmers based on adjusted risk-profiles. 

This is just the beginning.

In this article, we’ve touched on the capabilities of Argi-Tech and what it can do for farmers and the rest of the population alike. Over the next few months we’ll delve into what the future holds, the full Aerobotics offering, and how the precision agriculture industry is currently impacting the farm. We’ll talk about satellites, drones, variable rate applications, yield estimates, the Internet of things and crop scouting, and more.

Ultimately, we’ll look at how these technologies will have a major impact on farming and farm automation in the years to come. 

Everything is changing. But have you decided to jump on board or not?