Labor need will drive drones, tech experts say
FARGO, N.D. — Drones and robotics seem inevitable as farmers face worker shortages and weed challenges become more complicated.
Agriculture was again an important part of the fifth annual Drone Focus event that drew nearly 300 people to the Avalon Event Center in Fargo. Brian Carroll, director of operations for Emerging Prairie, and who oversees the organization's new Grand Farm initiative — an autonomous farming research project near Horace, N.D., — moderated agricultural panels at the meeting. Carroll estimated that about 15 to 20% of the crowd this year is focused particularly on agricultural issues. Many of this year's attendees are students — many with an agricultural interest.
The 'sweet spot'
Ag panelist Noel Anderson, a John Deere Electronics Solutions executive in Fargo who has been involved in 116 patents, said there are pressures to reduce farm implement size in width and weight.
Precision chemical placement will be more possible with smaller implements.
"I think where it's going to end up is you will find larger autonomous equipment where there is a labor issue and you want to cover tens of thousands of acres with a small amount of people—maybe small grains where your seeding and fertilizing, and not planning to put anything on the rest of the season," Anderson said. "But where you want to do this precise operation relative to the plant, it's going to favor smaller. Why not go down to a single row? But then you get to cost issues because each one is going to have processing capability. When you get lighter things, it doesn't always go through tougher field conditions as well as a heavier piece of equipment."
Anderson thinks the "sweet spot" for autonomous equipment for high-precision work will by 9 feet wide, or if the implement folds, 18 feet wide.
"If you're going with a traditional tractor, attaching implements to that, you're probably putting a number of these tractors with the attached implements onto a semi, hauling it down with a human driver, or in my better dreams and fantasies, an autonomous semi, taking autonomous tractors down the road," Anderson said.
The real world
One ag panel included farmer Matthew Rohlick, who raises corn and soybeans near in the Willmar and Renville areas of west-central Minnesota. Rohlick also is North American sales manager for Taranis North America, a New Richmond, Wis., based venture capital-backed company with international headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel. Teranis offers in-season, multi-layered aerial imagery, with data collected by satellites, manned aircraft and proprietary drone technology. The company's drones vary in size and cost $10,000 to $50,000 each.
Rohlick has been working with drones in his farming since 2006 and initially worked with Haug Implement of Willmar, which used fixed wing airplanes only.
Taranis uses fixed wing aircraft primarily for whole-field imagery, which offers 8- to 12-centimeter resolution. "That gets about every couple of plants — used for targeted tissue samples, zone creation, variable rate fungicide application."
They have drone technology that allows stand counts — living plants per row or area in a field.
"It'll also allow us to see down to the insect on a leaf and identify weeds, even," Rohlick says. He says this allows the operator to identify different weed threats — waterhemp, morninglory — whatever the weed might be.
"We actually have image annotation — or machine vision learning — that runs our image ... through an 'agro-brain,' a very large computer, that identifies what's crops and what's insects or disease," Rohlick says. "It spits out a report at the end that says this is where your insects and weeds are throughout the field, or disease. This is how much pressure you have and the agronomist can make recommendations from there."
Taranis works primarily through crop consultants, agronomic retailers and cooperatives. He declined to cite a specific cost per acre fee, explaining that it varies by such things as how many times the crop is monitored.
Some farmers fly fields just once because they are large. If there are additional passes, there might be a cost reduction per pass.
"The best return-on-investment is amplifying in-season agronomic decisions," Rohlick said. Targeted tissue sampling, zone creation and variable-rate fungicide applications and harvest priority offer the best ROI, he said. The data can show the farmer what portions of fields are reaching physiological maturity, or has a quality issue with a hybrid.
Rohlik said "drone nerds" attended the first of about 40 drone conferences he's attended over the years. This one drew officials from equipment manufacturers and seed companies who want to know how drones will affect their businesses and their customers.
The advent of so-called 5G capabilities — a fifth generation of wireless technology under development — will advance the usability of sensors and connectivity for drones. "We might have a little shack scattered across our farmland that have this type of technology with charging stations for the robots, charging stations for the robots and drones, allowing them to go up and fly, and set down," he said.
John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University Extension machine specialist, credited current political leaders such Gov. Doug Burgum and former Sens. Byron Dorgan and Heidi Heitkamp for advancing cyber infrastructure in rural areas. He said the high-tech ag industry should be willing to share the benefits of its technology with the world's poorest people, in part because research shows that better fed countries help keep their populations in check.