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AgBot Challenge robot
SPOT, TILL AND SPRAY: This machine can eliminate weeds — without a driver! It was the Purdue Ag Engineering entry in the 2019 AgBot Challenge Weed and Feed competition.

Here comes the future, ready or not!

More drones, robots and other hard-to-fathom technologies are headed our way in agriculture.

When I was in high school, I saw a drawing of what farming would be like in the “future.” I was driving an Allis-Chalmers D-17 tractor and thinking moldboard plowing was state-of-the-art. Neil Armstrong hadn’t even stepped on the moon yet.

The drawing featured a helicopter-like machine dispensing chemicals, plants growing under a dome in one field and cows milked automatically on a carousel-type parlor. Living on a dairy farm with a Surge three-stall, side-opening parlor, it all seemed Buck Rogers to me.

You know part of the story. The rotary dairy parlor is old news — it’s been around for a long time. If you count a big drone as a helicopter-like device, they are already used commercially in parts of the world to do everything from spray rice fields to shoot seedling “bullets” into bare hillsides. Some companies are experimenting with various related concepts in the U.S., although they’re not yet commercialized.

More coming

Here’s the late Paul Harvey’s “rest of the story.” Whether you like it or not, more technology that would have once qualified as science fiction is headed your way. There are already companies offering drone mapping programs which they claim can count corn plants accurately enough to give you reliable stand counts.

Taranis, a company based in Israel, says its technology can pinpoint a broad range of weed species and simplify weed control. Sentera, the same company that says its software will deliver stand counts, can deliver weed density maps already, and spokespeople say the ability to identify one weed from another is only a matter of time.

Teams of college students and young entrepreneurs competed recently at Purdue University’s Agronomy Center for Research and Education in the AgBot Challenge. Started by Steve and Rachel Gerrish, Rockville, Ind., the competition moved to Purdue this year. Ron Turco, head of Purdue’s Agronomy Department, partnered with the Gerrishes to sponsor this year’s event, including an educational day for students featuring robot demonstrations.

“This is the way agriculture is going in the future,” Turco says. “We want more people to realize agriculture is about more than just soil and plants; it’s also about advanced technology.”

Some teams unveiled machines that could identify weeds and treat them species by species while fertilizing the crop at the same time. Others showed off various on-the-go soil sampling machines.

Are you ready?

A recent survey by Purdue’s Center for Commercial Agriculture, through its Ag Economy Barometer survey engine, indicates some of you are adapting services offered by companies such as Climate and Sentera, while others haven’t jumped on board yet. The goal of these services is to deliver information for in-season decision-making based on crop and weather information.

There are still challenges before the future fully arrives. Rural broadband capable of handling all the data generated by drones and sensors doesn’t exist everywhere. And the Purdue survey shows some of you are willing to try currently available services if they’re free but aren’t willing to pay more than a few dollars per acre for them.  

In the end, Turco is likely right: Agriculture is headed this direction. Whether you’re ready for it and whether all of it is progress may be subjects for another day, but it’s coming — just as sure as the rotary parlor replaced the three-stall milking parlor.

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