While the 1983 Styx song “Mr. Roboto” led us to imagine robots roaming the planet at some far-off time in the future, that time might be here. Artificial intelligence seems to be everywhere nowadays and not just in high tech labs, science centers, or nerdy dark basements. They are now in our agriculture industry and on our farms, and even in our yards with John Deere’s new robotic lawnmower.
In fact, the Mr. Roboto’s song lyrics eerily said “Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto, for doing the jobs that nobody wants to,” which is just what many of these smart agricultural machines are doing, like data collection, seeding, irrigating, crop analysis and other tasks that take humans too much time, energy and money to do.
When Hugh Bradlow, Chief Scientist from Telstra gave a substantive address on the future of information and its impact on technology, as reported in the Digest in May 2015, he predicted the future. He said “We will see abundant computing, abundant data, new analytics and artificial intelligence, through cloud services. Today, we take the data mainly from human sources. But now, we can expect more and more data from devices, with streaming analytics and data lakes.” He was right. That time has come.
John Deere acquires Blue River for their artificial intelligence
We’ve covered drones, robots, big data and many kinds of artificial intelligence in the past few years, but recently John Deere announced they are buying Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, California company that specializes and is amazingly smart in artificial intelligence for agriculture. It isn’t coming cheap at $305 million, but Deere is focused on expanding their automation technologies and artificial intelligence product offerings.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with a Blue River Technology team that is highly skilled and intensely dedicated to rapidly advancing the implementation of machine learning in agriculture,” said John May, President, Agricultural Solutions, and Chief Information Officer at Deere in their press release. “As a leader in precision agriculture, John Deere recognizes the importance of technology to our customers. Machine learning is an important capability for Deere’s future.”
In particular, Blue River Technology applied machine learning to agricultural spraying equipment and Deere is confident that similar technology can be used in the future on a wider range of products, May said.
Blue River designed and integrated computer vision and machine learning technology that will enable growers to reduce the use of herbicides by spraying only where weeds are present, optimizing the use of inputs in farming – a key objective of precision agriculture.
“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”
Already in 2017, Blue River Technology has been listed among Inc. Magazine’s 25 Most Disruptive Companies, Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, CB Insights 100 Most Promising Artificial Intelligence Companies in the World, and the Top 50 Agricultural Innovations by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.
Deere plans to have the 60-person firm remain in Sunnyvale with an objective to continue its rapid growth and innovation with the same entrepreneurial spirit that has led to its success. The transaction is expected to close in September.
May said the investment in Blue River Technology is similar to Deere’s acquisition of NavCom Technology in 1999 that established Deere as a leader in the use of GPS technology for agriculture and accelerated machine connectivity and optimization.
Cargill taps big data to make dairy industry more productive
Deere isn’t the only company expanding and investing in artificial intelligence. Cargill recently announced that dairy productivity increased in European markets that used their Dairy Enteligen application and they plan to expand it to the U.S. within the next several months. The tool helps farmers and consultants analyze tons of data and information on the cows via smart tablets and computers.
“In today’s agricultural economy, dairy farmers are looking for real-time information and insights inpage-dairy-enteligen-screen to help them make the best decisions to run a profitable and efficient farm, while also ensuring their animals are properly nourished,” Ricardo Daura, global product line director in Cargill Animal Nutrition’s digital insights business said in their press release. “We believe Dairy Enteligen has the power to fundamentally transform the dairy industry by unlocking the power of data to guide farmers’ decision-making right from their fingertips.”
Through the touch of a smart tablet or a computer keystroke, dairy consultants work with farmers to track key information, including milk productivity, animal health and comfort and feed formulation. The Dairy Enteligen data collection, management and analysis platform combines this information from multiple software programs into one system, allowing Cargill advisors and customers to make precise decisions on feed and farm management practices.
“Before even setting foot on the farm, a dairy consultant will know how much milk a customer’s cows are producing and why, and have identified opportunities for improvement,” Chantal van der Meijde, Cargill global category manager for dairy technology said in the press release.
The platform is built on a secure technology environment to ensure farm records are protected, yet is accessible by both the farmer and their Cargill consultants 24 hours a day, giving them access to relevant data whenever they need it.
“Technology is reshaping and redefining the agricultural and food sectors,” Daura said. “Dairy Enteligen is just one example of the ways Cargill is looking to technology to unlock insights that will help our customers grow, and more efficiently and sustainably manage their farm business.”
It seems to be working too, as Cargill saw an 11.7% increase in milk production in Italian farms using the new application, along with lower production costs, Daura told Bloomberg.
TERRA-MEPP – your new best robot friend
As we reported in July, in Illinois, the TERRA-MEPP robot collects useful information for plant breeders, such as emergence, height, biomass and canopy temperature. It has been tested by several companies, but will now be available to seed companies by the end of this year. Created by University of Illinois scientists, this robot treks along soil and crop rows to collect data that is easily downloaded and used to help seed companies evaluate their products.
Their goal is to expand and sell TERRA-MEPP, which stands for “Transportation Energy Resource from Renewable Agriculture-Mobile Energy Crop Phenotyping Platform,” to large farms in 2018. The robot can even work through the night in the dark to analyze biofuel crops to find desirable yields and traits. The smaller version of the robot is 3D printed making it lower in cost, about $5,000, whereas the larger version has sensors and cameras that alone cost $30,000.
Also in Illinois, as reported in the Digest in March, a semiautonomous robot may soon be roaming agricultural fields gathering and transmitting real-time data about the growth and development of crops, information that crop breeders—and eventually farmers—can use to identify the genetic traits in plants likely to produce the greatest yields.
Although the researchers currently are using the robot to assess fields of energy sorghum, a crop used in biofuel production, they say the robot would perform equally well with other tall-growing row crops such as corn and wheat, and possibly with soybeans before the plant canopy closes.
The bottom line
While Mr. Roboto might freak some of us out with the blinking red lights and shiny, cold reflective metal, there are definite pros to having robotic devices out on the fields gathering valuable crop data, analyzing dairy information, and more. Artificial intelligence could help in so many ways. It could improve agricultural productivity, lower the use of chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides, improve irrigation and water conservation, save money, resources and waste, and overall improve the environmental impact of agricultural methods and lead to dramatic improvements in the ways we do things.
Sir Francis Bacon is believed to have been the one to coin the phrase, “Knowledge is power” but little did he know back in 1597 that artificial intelligence would really give us incredible power.