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How farmers are deploying tech to boost yields and reduce waste

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


By 2050, the world’s population could be 9.7 billion. How will we feed everyone? Well, farmers have been innovating for thousands of years. So our best bet is to keep investing in new smart farming technology. Let’s dive into the latest developments in robot tractors, drones planters, vertical farms and more…

At the huge Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, Tim Marquis of farming company John Deere controlled an autonomous tractor entirely from his phone. Pretty impressive. But there’s more. The robot tractor was in a field in Texas – 1,288 miles away.

Visitors to CES are getting used to demonstrations like this. The expo might have been conceived as a showcase for consumer tech such as TVs, fridges and phones. But in the last few years, more and more farming companies have been taking part. In fact, John Deere first exhibited in 2019.

It’s easy to see why. Agriculture, in common with just about every other industry, is embracing digital transformation. Farmers are increasingly turning to technology to improve yields, minimise the use of resources and reduce waste.  

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Agritech might seem like a dramatic revolution. But it is part of the centuries-old story of farmers innovating to improve their yields. 


Global agritech: targeting a $78 billion market

Today, smart farming is a booming business. According to Spherical Insights, the global agritech market was worth $22.1 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $75.8 billion by 2032, at a CAGR of 13.1 percent. This potential is attracting huge investment. A report by McKinsey said 20 times more capital was invested in new agritech ventures in 2021 than in 2012, while VC investment overall market grew 11x. In 2022 it reached $10.6 billion.

So what’s driving this rising interest in the space? Most of all, there is the humanitarian need. The world’s population is on track to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 thanks to longer average lifespans. Obviously, it’s better to meet this growing demand with more efficient farming techniques than to simply devote more land to cultivation. 

And the good news is that there is plenty of scope to do so. According to the World Economic Forum, about 14 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17 percent of food production is wasted. These are regrettable statistics, but they show that there is plenty of scope to increase production without necessarily consuming more raw materials.

In different ways, this is what agritech firms are trying to achieve. It’s a complex area, but to simplify it we can point to four key technological factors that are driving this new era of precision farming. They are 

•    Data gathering and processing
•    Remote connectivity/The Internet of Things (IoT) 
•    Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) 
•    Automation and robotics

Let’s look more closely at these factors, and some of the interesting companies using them to make farming smarter. 



Data gathering and processing

Data analysis is changing virtually every industrial sector. By gathering accurate information and studying it, specialists can respond in the best way to what is happening now. Agriculture is no different. New agritech software tools let farmers collect and process data easily and in one place so they can:

•    Make more efficient use of seed, fertiliser and water 
•    Identify plant stresses, soil issues and pests before they become a problem
•    Discover market insights for reduced crop waste and loss 
•    Comply with farming regulation  
•    Exchange information with partners 
•    Find targeted advice on financial services and risk management tools 

Data analysis tools are already helping farmers all over the world – not least in developing markets. A good example is the Agrix app, developed by a Cameroonian company of the same name. Farmers use the app to scan an unhealthy plant, then upload it to get back environmentally-friendly treatment recommendations. The app also helps farmers manage the whole production cycle – seeding, growing and storage – through advice and task reminders.  

Indian app Plantix works in a similar way. It can detect more that 600 plant problems, is available in 18 languages, and has more than 20 million downloads worldwide already. It has also built an ecosystem to connect users to retailers and  finance providers.

Connectivity/The Internet of Things (IoT) 

If data is key for farmers, it raises the question: how do we collect it? The answer, of course, is via the Internet of Things. In other words, via a network of in-the-field devices, vehicles and drones that are embedded with sensors, software and network connectivity. In the case of smart farming, these devices can analyse soil and air, monitor crops, track livestock, assess farm equipment and more. 

The specific challenge for farmers, of course, is to find a network tech that can penetrate remote regions while being light on battery consumption. Let’s say a farmer wants to install 50,000 small soil sensors across hundreds of square miles. These devices will be positioned in harsh and hard-to-reach locations. To connect them will demand a low power wide area network (LP-WAN) technology that can connect a large number of devices across remote long distances, use minimal power and build in security to protect data from bad actors.

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other 'short distance' protocols cannot meet these requirements. However, cellular networks can.  Which is why the world’s telco operators developed two special network protocols – LTE-M and Narrowband-IoT – designed for use by remote devices (rather than people with smartphones). They can support up to 10 years of battery life.

The final piece of the agritech IoT jigsaw is new SIM technology. The manually inserted plastic SIM card is unsuited to the world of remote connected things. Replacing it is the eSIM, which can be soldered into place, and activated remotely across the entire device lifecycle. 

To be clear, we are still at the first phase of the connected farm era. It’s been reported that, even in the US, only about one quarter of farms currently use any connected equipment or devices to access data. Still, there are many emerging examples of innovative agritech IoT. Take the Cowlar, for example. This is a kind of bovine necklace that a cow ‘wears’ to track temperature, activity and behaviour. The Cowlar transmits live data to an interactive dashboard, with actionable recommendations. 

A more ambitious use case is Argentina’s Kilimo, which is working to reduce farms’ water usage. The company collects daily satellite data and information from weather stations, which it combines with local soil data from 370,658 acres across Latin America/ It then shows the farmer a kind of ‘water balance sheet’, which he or she can use to make better decisions about cultivation. Kilimo claims to save producers up to 30 percent of water, adding up to 72 billion litres so far.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) 

AI is now powering innovations across virtually all sectors. Farming is one of them. Indeed, according to research by Polaris Market Research, the AI in agriculture market was worth $1.44 billion in 2022 and could scale to $11.96 billion by 2032.

AI/ML is an exciting tool because it can analyse large data sets and make smart decisions about which actions to take in real-time. A good example of AI in action is ‘smart spraying’. It’s estimated that farmers spend up to $60 billion per year on herbicides. Yet a high percentage of these chemicals land on soil or healthy plants. 

This is thanks to the poor precision of broadcast sprayers. But new tech is changing the game. Smart spraying systems use machine learning algorithms and computer vision to study the terrain and only spray herbicide when it detects weeds. Israeli company Greeneye Technology is one of the pioneers in the area. It uses boom mounted cameras to scout the entire field in sub-mm resolution. Greeneye claims to cut herbicide use by 78 percent.

Automation and robotics 

The last key to the agritech revolution is automation. Farming is hard manual work, and farmers in many countries are struggling to find workers thanks to declining interest in agricultural employment and changing immigration laws. Automation offers a solution to this challenge, as well as promising to boost efficiency.

Consider again the smart spraying practice mentioned above. Yes, machine learning can make decisions about herbicide use. But to do the actual spraying, you need a tractor – and therefore a person. How much more productive could a farmer be if he or she could operate a fleet of autonomous tractors?

Unlike people, machines can run don’t need to eat or sleep. They can even work in the dark. This is why agricultural companies are now investing in drones, self-driving tractors, robotic harvesters, autonomous irrigation systems and planting robots.

The previously-mentioned John Deere is a leader in this space. It introduced its autonomous tractor prototype in 2022, and is now testing them in seven US states.  Each tractor is equipped with a robotic camera to allow it to move around, monitor the environment, and feed data into the main system.

Drones represent another promising area for agritech automation, since they can reach inhospitable and remote areas. One of the most eye-catching examples is a US startup called Mast Reforestation, which is dedicated to repairing land damaged by fire. It cultivates seedlings in nurseries and then flies swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles over charred land so that the seeds can take root and grow. 

The innovations listed above are powering significant changes to conventional farming. But at the cutting edge, they are coming together to support even more disruptive approaches to cultivation.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is controlled environment agriculture (CEA) – better known as ‘vertical farming’. These facilities are sealed off from the outside environment. Instead of relying on natural conditions, everything is controlled artificially: water, temperature, humidity levels, ventilation, light and air.

Because of this artificiality, these mini-ecosystems can grow crops all year round. 
They are also extremely efficient and sustainable. In fact, research says CEA can produce crops with 70% to 95% less water than required for normal cultivation.

Now, these operations are starting to go live. Europe’s biggest vertical farm is being developed outside Copenhagen by Danish start-up Nordic Harvest. The €8.5 million facility comprises 14 floors, and has the potential to supply 1,000 tonnes of food a year. The founders say its facility uses 250 times less space to grow the same amount of crops as a conventional farm. 

From simple plant health apps to space-age vertical farms, there’s no doubt that tech innovation is transforming agriculture. A century of change lies ahead, and this can only be better for farmers, consumers and the planet.


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