With global population expected to swell to almost 10 billion by 2050, it’s clear that the world’s farmers will need to grow a great deal more food to feed Earth’s increasing numbers. What’s more, scientists say farmers will need to produce those crops with fewer inputs, including water, fertilizer and arable land.

Research scientists and agribusiness alike have taken notice and are engineering strategies to help farmers grow more with less. Using technology and big data, the emerging field of precision agriculture enables farmers to grow food more efficiently. It does so by telling farmers precisely what input a field needs (fertilizer and other nutrients) and when to apply it for optimum benefit, says Dr. Rajiv Khosla, professor of precision agriculture and an associate dean at Colorado State University. “There is a significant amount of new private and public investment that’s happening in agriculture to make it more productive, more lucrative and more profitable,” says Khosla.

Those investments include data systems, sensors, technology and more precise application methods. Such tools are “really what the industry is looking at as the way we’re going to meet a doubling of food demand,” says Lance Donny, founder and CEO at OnFarm Systems.

Business Intelligence for the Farmer

Lance Donny, OnFarm Systems.Lance Donny, OnFarm Systems.OnFarm helps growers improve their agronomics, including helping them decide when to water, when to apply fertilizer and even how to make labor decisions. The company’s software dashboard is among the first “integrated platforms” for data in agriculture, Donny says. OnFarm worked with a number of companies and then built connectors and APIs to extract sensor data to the cloud enabling the data to be displayed in a coherent, easy-to-understand way on a grower’s computer.

“We pull from about 42,000 sensors today,” Donny says. “There are probably 250 different data types, so we pull from an extremely broad set of information.”

The software also offers ESRI mapping and United State Department of Agriculture soil layers. Growers and their field workers can set alerts on a range of parameters and receive text or email alerts in real time. A typical OnFarm customer farms about 1,500 acres, as they “primarily are the ones that are deploying technology in bigger numbers and have a need for a kind of unified decision system,” Donny says.

Fertilizing Using Self-Driving Vehicles

Some agricultural enterprises are looking to use unmanned vehicles to automate and improve the efficiency of basic tasks such as fertilizing crops. The Rowbot is one such vehicle that may help farmers fertilize crops more efficiently. The autonomous device, about 22 inches wide, seven feet long and two to four feet high, fertilizes corn plants as it drives down a row. Rowbots may provide a farmer with two advantages over traditional application methods: precision and dosage control.

The diesel-powered Rowbot uses planar LIDAR and stereo camera sensors to navigate. Image source: Rowbot Systems.The diesel-powered Rowbot uses planar LIDAR and stereo camera sensors to navigate. Image source: Rowbot Systems. “What that drone gives you is that precision to provider fertilizer, which is costly,” Donny says. “If you apply too much of it, you’re going to waste it and you might even saturate the soil with salt, and so it becomes problematic over time.”

The diesel-powered Rowbot uses planar LIDAR and stereo camera sensors to navigate the rows, and travels at three to four miles per hour as it fertilizes, says Kent Cavender-Bares, CEO of Rowbot Systems. The device can carry a payload of up to 450 pounds and weighs about 850 pounds unloaded. “We plan to leverage the onboard stereo camera to get 3D imagery for both crop and soil sensing,” Cavender-Bares says. The drones are not yet on the market, but Cavender-Bares says the company plans to make the drones available at a per-acre charge.

Sensor in a Seed

At a cost that sometimes can exceed $1 per plant, soil sensors may not be a cost effective way to monitor the needs of individual plants, especially considering that one acre of corn may contain more than 40,000 plants. But farmers may one day use Internet of Things (IoT) devices to determine when individual plants need fertilizer or other attention.

Donny says that he sees a day when ultra-low cost, disposable sensors are embedded or sprayed on seeds before they are sold, similar to the way that various coatings are sprayed onto seeds today. "So you’ve got to be at next to zero in the sensor cost and then it would make sense to have a sensor on a plant,” says Donny. “And then you could apply chemicals, fertilizers, water in whatever was the most efficient way possible for that particular field.”

At about 1.25 percent, global farming’s annual increase in productivity is not keeping pace with the faster-paced growth of population. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a disaster today, but in 10 years, it’s going to be,” Donny says. “If we don’t keep up with technology, food prices will increase, demand will increase, global instability will increase—all those things will increase when you have food instability.”

Growers can receive agronomic advice and weather forecasts using a cellphone.Growers can receive agronomic advice and weather forecasts using a cellphone.While U.S. farmers will benefit from agtech, the real beneficiaries may be growers in developing countries. African farmers, for example, tend to have farms that are roughly two acres in size, says Donny. Although a Rowbot drone probably doesn’t make sense for that size of a farm, African growers still can receive agronomic advice and weather forecasts using a cellphone, a device that many farmers in Africa and elsewhere already have.

Indeed, so-called “AgriApps” are helping India’s farmers send video or photos of diseased plants to experts for identification and treatment advice. A separate device, developed by an Indian scientist who works at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), detects and analyzes soil moisture and soil minerals and transmits the data to the cloud. The farmer can then view the easy to understand, color-coded soil analysis on his phone and take corrective action.

The kinds of deep data and analytics that the Internet and information technology have brought to other industries has bloomed late in agriculture, but scientists, startups and growers are making up for lost time. The science of precision agriculture aims to ensure that growers and those who consume what they produce benefit.

To contact the author of this article, email engineering360editors@globalspec.com