How AI is Transforming Agriculture

Undeniably, Agriculture and farming is one of New Zealand's most important professions. I take a brief look at how AI is set to transform this industry across the planet.

How we farm and grow crops has changed dramatically over the years, especially with the introduction of various technologies. As the world’s population continues to grow, fertile land becomes more scarce with urban sprawl claiming productive land for housing developments and the like. We have had to get creative and become more efficient about how we farm, using land more efficiently to produce crops, and increasing the productivity and yield of our limited land resources.

Worldwide, agriculture is a $5 trillion industry, and in New Zealand it makes up approximately 5% of our GDP at $10.6 billion. It may sound a bit like science fiction but agriculture, like many industries, are starting to turn to AI technologies to help yield larger and healthier crops, control pests, monitor soil and growing conditions, organize data, offer data-backed recommendations, reduce workload, and reduce human input on a wide range of tasks across the entire food supply chain.

AI helping analyze farm data

Farms equipped with monitor technology produce hundreds of thousands of data points on the ground daily. With the help of AI, farmers can now analyze these huge data sets much faster and more efficiently than ever before. This data gives farmers a wealth of knowledge in real time about about a wide variety of things, including weather conditions, temperature, water usage or soil conditions collected from their farm to better inform their decisions. For example, AI technologies can now advise farmers to help optimize their planning for more bountiful yields by determining crop choices, the best hybrid seed choices and resource utilization.

AI systems are helping to improve harvest quality and accuracy – which is known as precision agriculture. Precision agriculture uses AI technology to help detect disease in plants, pests, and poor plant nutrition on farms.  AI sensors can detect and target weeds and then decide which herbicides to apply within the right buffer zone. This helps to prevent over application of herbicides and excessive toxins that find their way into our food.

Farmers are using AI to create seasonal forecasting models to improve agricultural accuracy and increase productivity. Such models are able to predict upcoming weather patterns months ahead to assist the decision-making on farm.

In addition to ground data, farmers are also taking to the sky to monitor their farms. Computer vision and deep learning algorithms can process data captured from drones flying overhead. From drones, AI enabled cameras can capture images of the entire farm, which can then be analyzed in near-real time to identify problem areas and potential improvements. Given that they’re airborne, these unmanned drones are able to quickly cover far more land than humans on foot. Allowing for large farms to be monitored more frequently at lower cost.

AI tackles the labour challenge

With less people choosing farming as a career, most regions are facing a severe workforce shortage. Our rural population is steadily declining, and this trend is seen across the world. Most people are living in cities, and are unwilling, or unable, to work on the land. One solution to help with the shortage of workers is AI agriculture robots. These robots augment the human labour workforce and are come in various forms. Robots can harvest crops at a higher volume and faster pace than human labourers, more accurately identify and eliminate weeds, and reduce costs for farms by having a round the clock labour force. 

Additionally, farmers have begun to turn to chatbots for assistance. Chatbots help answer a variety of questions and provide advice and recommendations on specific farm problems. Chatbots are already being used in numerous other industries with great success. 

Going deeper

Through the use of AI and cognitive technologies, farms are able to run more efficiently, with less workers than before, while still meeting output requirements. This article is but a cursory look at how these technologies are changing agriculture. In future articles, we plan to dig deeper into specific technologies at the forefront of the AI revolution.

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