Autonomous solutions for agriculture have been hot for a while now – and the increasing use of such smart farming technology was a recurring theme at the recent gathering of the Vision Conference in Glendale, Arizona. The annual event brings together leaders from across the agritech ecosystem with the lofty goal to ‘shape the strategic roadmap for a sustainable food value system to feed the world’. That’s a big aspiration for sure, but I left Glendale encouraged by the tangible advances that are gaining momentum.
Talking of progress and how far we’ve come, keynote speaker John Teeple of Amazon Web Services began by pointing out that ploughs pulled by animals served as the primary technology in agriculture for several centuries before the advent of the mechanical tractor around 200 years ago. Of course, change is now accelerating exponentially as we rise to the urgent challenge of feeding a global population of around 10 billion by 2050.
With what John described as agriculture 3.0 largely in place, a good deal of remote sensing technology and data science is now enabling farmers to ‘sense and act’. He set the scene for the rest of the conference by looking ahead to agriculture 4.0, which promises to take efficiencies to another level. My interest was piqued by the ensuing debates about how and where this data can be more targeted and processed more efficiently to produce quicker results.
I’m a relatively new member of the 800-strong Cambridge Consultants global team. So I was reassured to see that key strands of breakthrough innovation that we’ve been developing for clients – such as digital twins, artificial intelligence and machine learning – were instrumental in the discussions. More of that in a moment, but first let me share a sense of the atmosphere at what is a unique gathering of the agriculture technology community. Attendees came from a variety of areas and included developers of hardware and software in addition to the farmers who produce the food that we all enjoy. This mix ensured a healthy range of insights and opinions.
Digital twins and machine learning
A recurring observation on the show floor was that farmers make thousands of decisions a year related to crop cultivation. They need ‘actionable intelligence’ to inform those choices without creating extra work or uncertainty. In situ and standoff sensors now provide reliable real-time measurements enabling modelling techniques like digital twins and machine learning to produce useful inputs for required decisions. A fascinating panel discussion on high-resolution imagery reinforced the continuous improvement of optical sensing modalities to gain insight from a distance.
As I noted at the outset though, the increasing use of autonomy, automation, and robotics on the farm was the strongest theme running through the conference. A panel discussion including tractor vendor John Deere, nutrient provider Yara, and instrument vendor Topcon provided considerable insight into the convergent technologies that are geared to improving efficiency.
For me the most compelling element of these developments is the impact on productivity. Seed-sowing robots and self-driving tractors ease workload, of course, but the ability to precisely apply the right crop input at the optimal time is a boon for both operations and cost efficiencies.
When I caught up with my colleague Niall Mottram after the event, he talked about the clever machine vision and fluidics behind John Deere’s recently announced ExactShot technology. It sprays just the right amount of fertilizer on each seed – pretty game-changing when you consider the average field contains around 24 million seeds. Going forward, we can expect such innovations in autonomous machines and robotics to get even smaller, smarter, and more cost effective.
Standalone autonomous vehicles
When it comes to robotics, other colleagues here at CC have great insight into the ‘buy, build or rent’ business models that are emerging across industry sectors. Writing for E&T (Engineering and Technology), Oli Qirko talked about the rental RaaS (robots as a service) option for standalone autonomous vehicles or autonomous robots, which are easier to plug into an existing operation. At the Vision Conference, Gabe Sibley, CEO of Verdant Robotics expanded on the subject from an agri perspective. He emphasized the need to show value to the farmer and make sure that – with continuous refinement – the service is perceived as better than a product.
On the second day at Glendale, attention turned to controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and the latest trends there. Tomatoes have been grown in very high volumes in greenhouses for many years, of course. A company called Little Leaf Farms and one of its investors Equilibrium Capital provided great insight into the next crop, namely leafy greens. It was prophetic that the ‘atmospheric river’ phenomenon causing torrential rains in California notably took place during the conference. Large grocers like Walmart are increasingly looking at CEA and other approaches to protect the food supply from disruptions caused by climate change.
Indeed, emerging business trends such as climate tech, food sustainability, cloud computing, and the metaverse were all major talking points throughout the two days. The Conference was an excellent forum for discussing ways to positively impact agriculture through technology. Several small companies with potentially disruptive technologies attended and mingled with larger players to find the best solutions for current problems.
My conclusions? Versatile front-end sensor and applicator technology will help farmers reduce cost and enhance production by producing measurements enabling actionable intelligence. Improved system engineering will continue to make these systems more robust in the challenging field environment. The rapidly evolving areas of digital twins, industrial metaverse, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will find increasing use in this dynamic space. Cambridge Consultants is actively involved in agriculture technology projects with partners in all of these areas, so please do reach out by email if you’d like to discuss any of the topics.