The Rusmoloko Farms, in the Russian district of Ramensky, is equipping its dairy cows with virtual reality (VR) goggles, showing the animals green, sunny meadows in an effort to boost their mood and increase milk production. At the moment, VR for cows is just an isolated experiment, but there are other technologies that are rapidly gaining traction in the industry. Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA sales at automation parts supplier EU Automation, delves deeper into three of them.
According to the Harvard Business Review, global population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with food demand increasing between 59 and 98 per cent. This should be good news for farmers, as long as they are able to capitalise on the situation.
However, agriculture is plagued by low incomes and a serious shortage of skilled workers, so the industry has to figure out ways to boost productivity with only limited resources. Luckily, technology can help.
Virtual and augmented reality is not only useful to entertain cows, it can also be used for a variety of farming applications. For example, it can be used to examine the soil and establish which crops would grow better, or which nutrients must be integrated to allow existing crops to give a more abundant yield.
One example is the farmAR app, a cloud-based platform that collects satellite information on the user’s land. Thanks to artificial intelligence and deep learning, the information can be processed to alert the user of any issues, such as dry patches, the necessity to integrate with a certain nutrient, or the start of a disease. The farmer can then walk the field with AR guidance and reach the locations that need attention.
AR can also be used to train workers, allowing them to familiarise themselves with machinery before they operate it. This avoids the costs related to operating machines, reduces wear and tear, and minimises the risk of accidents.
Agricultural robots, or agribots, are already widely used to increase productivity in every aspect of the industry. For example, the Small Robot Company, based on Portsmouth, UK, offers agribots that can automate virtually any agricultural task, from seeding, weed-removing and fruit picking.
However, state-of-the-art agribots can do more than just automate repetitive jobs. Thanks to artificial intelligence, they can carry out their tasks selectively, for example by watering and fertilising only the plants that require it, and only with the required amount of fertiliser or water, so that no resources are wasted.
Agribots may require an important upfront investment but they offer long-term returns by working 24/7 and being immune from fatigue, stress and sickness. Moreover, it is possible to loan them through a Farming as a Service (FaaS) model. In a sector characterised by chronic labour shortage, these robots could be a valid help for farmers.
According to research firm Global Market Insights, the market for agricultural drones, which reached about $338 million in 2016, will surpass $1 billion by 2024. Farmers are increasingly aware of the benefits of this technology and this, together with increasing funding for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), is driving sales.
Drones can be used in every phase of agricultural production. They can scout an area and, thanks to smart sensors, analyse the soil and determine its composition, PH and level of moisture.
They can then provide a bird’s eye view of the crops, taking images that will help farmers identify any potential issues such as the beginning of a pest of fungal infestation. This is especially useful for farmers who own vast fields, which are hard to monitor at the centre. Finally, drones can provide an accurate estimate of the quality and quantity of yield.
There is still no evidence that AR will eliminate dairy cows’ winter blues and lead to increased milk production. There is, however, ample research showing the potential of agri-tech to increase productivity, so that farmers can meet food demand while staying competitive on the market.