The Future Is Now In Agricultural Technologies

Jim Carroll

If you could look into a crystal ball and see the future of agriculture over the next 25 years, you would be blown away and find some of it hard to imagine. And, you might be surprised that what seems futuristic is already happening on the farm.

When considering the pace of technological advancements, Moore’s Law is constructive. It generally states that computing power doubles every two years (some say 18 months). While the computing power doubles, the price for the technology falls.

Think about Apple’s iPhone. Every year the company introduces two new-and-improved versions of the phone. Each one is a little faster and can do more stuff, while the earlier versions get cheaper in price.
While all these gee-whiz advancements seem to be happening most in consumer electronics, don’t be fooled. It is happening in agriculture, too. Jim Carroll and Jack Uldrich are two popular futurists on the speaking circuit across the U.S. Both say the wave of innovation impacting agriculture will be staggering in the coming years. “We live in tremendous times and tend to overlook the leaps we’ve made particularly in agriculture,” says Uldrich.

Sensors And Bots

The size of computer sensors are getting smaller, but more powerful over time, while the price drops. Imagine a watermelon field with tiny sensors spread thoughout connected to the vines to inform the grower exactly what plants need for water and other inputs. “These sensors are getting so affordable they already are being used in West Coast vineyards and on farms in Israel,” says Urldrich. “That may sound like science fiction, but who would have imagined 25 years ago that today we would have immediate access to the world’s encyclopedia in our pockets via the use of smartphones.”

Carroll says robotics will be having an impact on the farm quicker than people would believe. “The technology for autonomous vehicles is already pretty mature,” he says. “If you have a meeting with Google in San Jose, they’ll pick you up at the airport in an autonomous car. There’s a person inside ‘just in case.’ It will probably be easier to deploy on a farm than on a highway.

Given all the controversy around immigration reform, Uldrich says robots might fill in for harvest in the future.“There are people at MIT who have developed a robot so sophisticated that it can detect when a tomato is ripe and so sensitive it can pick it without damaging the fruit,” he says. “Robotic technology is getting better, faster, and more affordable. It will allow us to do much more in harvesting a wide variety of crops.”

A Whole New World

There is a viral YouTube clip of a 1-year-old girl trying to manipulate a print magazine like an iPad. She moves her fingers around the magazine to no avail — it does nothing. Give her an iPad and she’s delighted flicking through screens with her fingers. 
Jack Uldrich marvels that technology is becoming so user-friendly and intuitive that a baby can figure it out. “What will that little girl expect for information as she gets older,” he asks. “She will want to interact with information. She will want to know who grew the oranges she buys. Social media already is providing this opportunity for interaction and the demand for it will only grow in the future.” 

Genomics Breaks New Ground

Moore’s Law applies to genetic science as well; only it is faster with the price of sequencing genes being cut in half every few months. “The cost of the technology to first sequence a human genome was around $3 billion,” says Carroll. “Today, it’s less than a thousand bucks. The same cost curve holds true for agriculture. There’s an exponential increase in processing speed of these machines and a collapse in their cost, which means that we’ll witness an acceleration in the science of agricultural genomics.”
But, will the public fully accept genetically engineered crops? “In the not too distant future, more and more environmentalists will start looking at genetically engineered crops with a changing attitude,” says Uldrich. “They will begin to realize the sustainability of genetically engineered crops when they see their tremendous benefits.”

Wait, There’s More

Another trend already under way is the establishment of farms in the heart of cities. The popularity of “buy local” and retailers’ desire to shorten the distance of supply chains, will drive urban farming forward.
“The world’s first vertical farms just went up in Sweden and Singapore,” says Uldrich. “These are basically skyscrapers that are using sophisticated hydroponics and advanced lighting to produce crops in urban centers.”
What happens when a part breaks on your tractor? Why not print out a new one? As unbelievable as this sounds, Uldrich says 3-D printing technology has the potential for major impacts in agriculture. The technology involves the printing out of physical three dimensional objects.
“General Electric has stated a goal that by 2015 or 2016, it will have technology that will enable the printing out of aircraft engine parts,” says Uldrich. “If it is possible to print out aircraft parts, why not tractor parts or other things needed on the farm.”

Ready, Set, Done

To folks older than 40, the technology already available can seem baffling. Carroll notes that the onslaught of new technology will only increase in speed and capability. For that reason, he says, “The future belongs to the fast. A lot of will happen with the 25-year-old straight out of agricultural college arriving back at the family farm with an iPad in their hand and an iPhone on their hip. “This younger generation is voracious when it comes to the use of technology. This trend will see a rapid acceleration of the adoption of many of the technology ideas. They’ll be very aggressive with innovation because it’s in their genes to explore new tech.”

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