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Robotic technology is revolutionising farming

By Mark Ross

From weeding and spraying crops to taking care of cattle, digital technology is making its mark on agriculture.

Self-driven vehicles are picking and grading fruit as well as detecting and pollinating flowers. Now the latest technology involves detecting and managing disease - helping farmers to become more productive and sustainable. Modern agricultural machines take away some of the more time-consuming tasks and help to protect crops from disease with exact doses and targeted applications of products.

In the last decade, there has been an unprecedented growth in precision farming - with about 80 percent of new farm equipment using it. This advanced digital precision technology can help farmers to use land efficiently and maximise harvests while reducing costs and workloads.

Robotic technology makes it possible to detect the precise location of weeds or disease and spray only the affected area. That means lower costs, lower environmental impact and a more abundant harvest.

Farmers using advanced digital precision technology report reducing herbicide use by 10 percent and diesel by 20 percent.

Thanks to digital connectivity, smart farm equipment can provide farmers with field-specific information from cloud-based farm management software. Sensors collect data from a distance to evaluate soil and crop health and identify the presence of pests or diseases.

Agricultural drone technology has been improving in the last few years. Drones allow farmers to constantly monitor crop and livestock conditions – often more reliably than manual inspections.

Drones mainly capture images and provide data, but they also monitor crops from planting to harvest - helping farmers to react faster to threats such as weeds, insects and fungi. This data is processed and translated into information on plant health and pest infestations. Data can then be entered into smart machinery to adjust the amount pesticide used for a field. This saves time and improves the application of variable input rates in real-time.

Drones can also be used to apply pesticides. Aerial spraying in Japan and China is done by drones. In Europe, they are used to distribute biological agents like wasp eggs.

The potential for drones is sky-high. Water-resistant drones can monitor any type of crop, in any geographical area, in any weather. They can also get higher quality and more precise images in real-time as they fly below the clouds and have high photo resolution — far superior to satellites, which only take pictures once a week or month and don’t work well when it’s cloudy.

The use of agricultural drones will grow significantly in the coming years as they offer a wide range of applications that improve precision farming. They can potentially replace the human application of pesticides, minimising farmer exposure.

That’s some high-flying technology that will hopefully be available in New Zealand sometime soon.

• Mark Ross is chief executive of Agcarm, the industry association for companies which manufacture and distribute crop protection and animal health products.


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