New Ag-tech Changes the Landscape of Smart Farming
In 2021, a crop of technology has revolutionized three sectors of modern agriculture: precision farming, digital farming, and smart farming.
Between 1992 and 2012 alone, U.S. agricultural businesses lost roughly 31 million farming acres to development.
Depiction of how agricultural land has been converted to urban and residential developments between 1992 and 2012. Image used courtesy of the American Farmland Trust and Modern Farmer
These farmers, agronomists, and surveyors are tasked with the complex job of understanding the relationships among soils, elevations, and growing techniques. There’s been a push to make these labor-intensive farming processes more efficient.
You might’ve heard terms like precision farming, digital farming, or smart farming—all of which have their own diverse technology requirements. Each utilizes different devices and components to achieve an end goal. While there’s some overlap, all three techniques have distinct value across our modern agricultural landscape.
For each of these sectors, agricultural technology ("ag-tech") is considered key to the success of farming and ecosystem management.
Today’s precision farming techniques center on optimization and accuracy. The goal of precision farming is to foster crop growth and livestock raising in a controlled, centralized fashion—using a number of technologies:
- Autonomous vehicles, drones, and robotics
- GPS systems
- Automated hardware and software
- Soil sampling
Many credit John Deere’s 1990 GPS-equipped tractors with ushering in precision farming. Since then, commercial and small farms alike have branched out into non-traditional, “next-gen” forms of machinery to effectively map their operations.
John Deere tapped into NASA's GPS technology, which gave rise to self-driving tractors and popularized precision agriculture. Image used courtesy of John Deere and NASA
This new wave of ag-tech is designed to address challenges with existing farming techniques—like soil management, zoned planting, and others.
As an example of such technology, EarthOptics has developed an automated, ground-penetrating radar apparatus that’s mountable to all-terrain vehicles. Dubbed the GroundOwl, its combination of soil-compaction sensors and ML tooling empowers farmers to till more efficiently at different depths. The program outputs 3D depictions of soil conditions, allowing farmers to precisely control how they shift topsoil.
Digital farming uses connected devices to capture continual data on plots of pre-divided land. Each farm or field is effectively split into equal-sized, homogenous units, which are precisely located and dispersed.
This process requires sensors or embedded tags, especially with livestock. By EID (electronic identification) tagging common farm animals, farmers can track these grazing groups and employ rotational grazing strategies. Embedded transponders are scannable and often compatible with walk-through readers or connected processing plants.
RFID cattle tags are now a common staple for many farms. Image used courtesy of Amelicor
Electronic tags are replacing longstanding printed tags—though at a prevalence of only 5 percent. EID makes it possible to tie one cow (and its meat) to its exact farm of origin, but is much more expensive than traditional tags.
That’s the hardware side of things. These devices also require databases and qualitative software to store and analyze this data. In this way, digital farming blends both precision farming and smart farming—the next entrant on our list.
Farmers and producers rely on vast arrays of distributed sensors; these electronics collect real-time data on field conditions and transport it to companion applications. These data points either trigger automatic remediation processes tied to farm equipment (irrigation, fertilization, etc.) or suggest tailored action plans. This is typically where AI algorithms do the heavy lifting.
Photodetectors and photodiodes are an essential building block for optical sensors, which can measure soil content, including clay, moisture, and organic matter. Image used courtesy of Vishay and Mouser
Here’s a sample of what smart farming sensors measure:
- Soil nutrient content
- Soil pH
- Soil moisture
- Light intensity
- Disease infestation
Mouser Electronics offers a number of specialized agricultural sensors to capture these readings. Location sensors link with GPS satellites—supporting both smart and precision farming techniques. Optical sensors use light to assess soil properties via reflectance. Electrochemical sensors probe the soil for acidity readings and nutrients thanks to their ion-sensitive diodes. Mechanical sensors (along with radar) can measure soil compaction. Their springs and gauges measure resistive forces while penetrating the soil. Finally, dielectric sensors measure moisture content.
Ag-Tech in Action
Farms and commercial facilities can be sprawling. Even small family farms average 231 acres in size, while the largest farms typically consume 2,086 acres of land. It’s not uncommon for weather or growing conditions at one corner of a farm to differ from another. That’s why smart, localized weather stations have become popular—and viable—for farms of all sizes. These stations relay information to a central unit at certain time intervals, making crop management quicker and more targeted.
LoRa SoCs are also playing a unique part in revolutionizing the rubber industry. A new class of low-range, low-power WAN devices are automating the rubber extraction process from plots of trees. This has already boosted harvesting speed, extraction yields, and worker safety. STMicroelectronics unveiled its newest chip design earlier last month alongside CIHEVEA, which has fitted trees with electronic tapping machines. ST’s LoRa semiconductors enable these devices to function and receive signals from a centralized controller.
ST says its STM32WL LoRa module is embedded in a new rubber tapping industrial robot to maximize plantation efficiency in China and South-East Asia. Image used courtesy of STMicroelectronics
A network-server mesh relays any data from these STM32WLE5 units for testing and debugging purposes. The premise is that farmers can therefore perform smarter preventative maintenance or bring malfunctioning machines offline as required. Internally, an Arm Cortex-M4 keeps things running, while a sub-GHz radio allows communication. ST-designed peripheral components complete the package.
If more tools like these become cost-effective and ubiquitous, smart farming might take yet another step forward in the near future.
Designing a Smarter Farming Future
As shown, the agricultural world is a perfect testbed for a number of new electronics. Engineers are tapping into a field where—for example—soil analysis methods hadn’t changed for 30 years prior. There’s plenty of potential for new development, and devices like the automated rubber harvester merely form the tip of the iceberg.