The Fascinating Future of Agricultural Farming

In my last article I explored the role that sensors are playing in revolutionising the agricultural farming industry by enabling precision farming techniques to be practised.  These technological additions seek to inject greater efficiencies into the industry by helping to refine planting, crop maintenance and harvesting techniques in order to increase productivity.  I was fascinated by the abilities of this technology and the way it is providing farmers with greater insight and control over their land and providing efficiencies in their farming techniques.  I’ll admit this is mainly due to my ignorance on this topic.  But if this technology is already being used then I was keen to find out what the future has in store and how its use will attempt to address the mounting pressures placed on farmers to produce a greater supply of cheaper crops with minimal environmental impact.

There are of course a myriad of different technologies that are emerging and being developed for use within agricultural farming, the majority of which utilise or are some way linked to sensor technology.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones themselves are not strictly sensors, however by applying sensors their use is set to play a highly vital role in improving the accuracies of obtaining land data for use in precision farming.  They allow images taken by sensors to be captured at a far higher resolution than satellites deliver.  They can access areas below tree level that would otherwise be hidden from satellite view, plus they allow images to be obtained even on cloudy days.  The sensors used in UAVs can be chosen based on the data required and options include RGB (red-green-blue), NIR (near infrared), RE (red edge), multispectral and thermal infrared.  Used on their own or when combined they collect highly accurate information on crop health, plant physiology analysis, land elevation, soil property and moisture levels, erosion analysis, yield forecasting and even plant counting.  All this can be done in a teeny tiny fraction of the time it would take a farmer to conduct this analysis manually.

This is fantastic, but what developments are being made to make use of this highly precise data?  The next step in the trail is to feed this information wirelessly into autonomous farm vehicles.  Automated tractors, harvesters and other farm machinery would then react to the data being sent to them to carry out otherwise manual and time-consuming tasks.  They are guided by highly accurate satellite navigation systems that enable absolute accuracies of an inch to an inch and a half. Farmers are then in receipt of real time information which allows them to apply a more strategic rather than reactive approach to their farming based on the statistical data and, in time, historical statistical data obtained by their sensors.

Another area of autonomous machinery where introductions to the industry are imminent is in the area of Agrobots.  These machines are being developed in order to bring dramatic changes to the way farming is conducted by taking labour intensive tasks away from people and passing them on to robots.  Agrobots are being developed in a wealth of shapes and sizes to address the requirements of applications including weeding, fruit picking, irrigation, planting, fertilising, soil maintenance, hay balling and harvesting crops.  Their size allows far greater speed and precision to be achieved than could ever be possible by farm workers or by larger more cumbersome machinery.

I couldn’t end this article without touching on another approach that is not only being explored but is also beginning to be practiced in certain areas of agricultural farming and seeks to address the biggest hurdle of the future – a lack of space.

According to data approximately 80% of the world’s land that is suitable for farming is being farmed, but with the world’s population set to increase by a forecasted 3 billion by 2050 will there be enough land to produce the crops required to sustain this growth? You may have heard of vertical farming, but if not, like the name suggests, it’s basically farming upwards and this could offer a potential answer to this increasingly critical dilemma.  The images on the web are truly futuristic, give it a Google and take a look – I particularly like the image of cows on the 20th storey of a building here  – now that’s one way to find out if they suffer from vertigo!  On a more serious note this concept would allow a certain degree of mass farming to take place in urban areas where space for crop cultivation is limited.  It’s not a new idea by any means and has evolved from the book Vertical Farming written by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915.

Since then different people have taken the idea and tried to establish if the concept is commercially viable and how it would work in practice.  Some farms are already using this principle in a less sci-fi way, such as Green Sense Farms near Chicago, USA.  Indoor farming of certain crops such as salad leaves and herbs, like those produced by Green Sense Farms, are becoming more popular as they create a closed ecological system which allows the farmer complete control over the environment.  This almost eliminates the presence of pests and sensors can be used to monitor and adjust climatic conditions so that they are perfect for optimal harvest whatever the weather’s doing outside. In these environments, crops are grown in tiers to ensure the use of space is maximised.   This is certainly set to be an excellent solution to space availability in the future and provides extensive opportunities for urban farming.

It is an exciting time to be working in the agricultural farming industry and within the next decade or so farms could operate in a completely different way to how we’ve ever seen them before.

The Role of Sensors in the Rise and Success of Precision Farming

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much at all about farming.  Tractors and combine harvesters in my family are seen as a great ‘spotting item’ when out on a car journey as a way of keeping the kids occupied. But, I’ve spent a lot of time researching for this article and it turns out that agricultural farming is a pretty interesting topic and is far more state-of-the-art than I’d ever imagined.  Delving into this subject shows just how much we take the food on our plate for granted.

The pressure on agricultural farmers today is immense.  There’s an ever growing global population that needs feeding but less space available for farming.  There are greater pressures from governments on farmers to incorporate environmentally sound practices, such as regulations on the use of fertilisers and pesticides, whilst at the same time maximising yields. There’s pressure from supermarkets and consumers for cheap prices. And finally, there’s Mother Nature who ever increasingly seems to throw a spanner in the works more often than she used to.  With all of this it’s no wonder there has been such an influx into investment to try and assist farmers’ productivity and give them greater control of their environments.

Farmers have witnessed and have been crucial to the evolution, integration and success of precision agricultural practices.  These are a complex combination of technologies that when combined helps farmers gain a highly detailed understanding of their land and allows them to adjust their planting and make informed decision on crop maintenance.

Modern day farm machinery is practically ‘space age’.  They have steering wheels, pedals, levers; all the things you would expect (but you don’t necessarily need someone sitting in them – wow!).  What they have in addition are a multitude of sensors that constantly monitor and collate data on factors such as moisture levels, soil composition, density and nutrient content and even crop health.  All of this valuable information is then processed by mapping software to generate highly detailed prescription maps, which can either be done by the farmer or sent to specialist mapping companies who collate and process the data on their behalf.  This allows a targeted, prescriptive approach to be applied to defined segments of land.  It enables farmers to not only better plan what crops to plant and where, but also helps informed decisions to be made about when to harvest, when and where to fertilise and with what, which seeds to use and also to gain a greater understanding of the weather’s effect on crops.

Ok, so I’m very easily impressed by technology (mainly due to my avoidance of anything technology based) but the next step really amazes me.  This data can then be programmed into the machinery’s computer which it then uses to automatically adjust its work according to the data.  For example, it will use GPS to determine where it is in a field (within a couple of inches), access its data sources to check the soil composition and then automatically adjust the fertiliser or water distribution accordingly so that the correct dosage is given.  The prescriptive approach makes for greater efficiency and economies of scale.  Farmers need only use the exact amounts of water and fertiliser they need, instead of spraying the whole field, helps farmers to minimise the amount of chemicals that are introduced to the water table and saves on labour intensive jobs such as manually checking moisture levels across acres and acres of farmland.

Sensors

Sensors also play a vital role at planting time by allowing farmers to precisely space their plants/seeds and to plant them at the correct depth, no matter how bumpy the terrain.  You can find sensors on pretty much every piece of equipment.  The use of load cells within grain carts can provide farmers with accurate details of exactly how much grain has been applied to which segments of a field.  This can then be correlated later in the year with the amount of harvest each segment has produced so the farmer can analyse which parts of the fields are producing higher yields.

This technology has also had another hugely significant impact that is helping to secure the future of crop farming.  It is drawing back a tech-savvy youth who were previously deterred by the labour intensive farming practices of the past.  They are attracted by the intelligence that the emerging technology brings with it and we are seeing a new breed of next-generation famers ready to take on their family business.  These farmers will see exciting new developments in their practices brought by the sensors of the future that are already in development.  Look out for my next blog article to find out more.

RIP Google PageRank

Google PageRank is a tool that was developed by Google in order to ascertain the importance of a website. Named after the Google founder Larry Page, PageRank looks at the number and quality of links to a website and uses this information to give the site an overall score. These scores help Google to rank websites in accordance with perceived importance. PageRank has been a popular algorithm for many years but has seen a decline in recent times. It seems that Google are slowly but surely removing PageRank from the public sphere.

Webmaster Tools

The first signs of Google’s plan to discontinue PageRank was way back in 2009. In an effort to curb the growing obsession website owners had with their PageRank score, the algorithm was removed from Webmaster tools. Google did this quite quietly but it was a clear sign that the organisation were changing their stance towards the tool.

Updates

From 2006 onwards, Google has been delivering fewer updates for PageRank each and every year. In fact, the last update for the algorithm was in December of 2013. This is particularly damning considering Google is a company who provide a steady stream of regular updates for all of their applications.

Browsers

Interestingly, Google has never offered an option to view PageRank within its flagship browser, Chrome. Google’s internet browser was released in 2008 and has become a representation of the company and its ethos towards the online world. With this in mind it seems strange that the organisation has never integrated PageRank into Chrome. Also, in 2011 the Google toolbar was removed from the Firefox browser and therefore access to PageRank.

Direct from Google

Although Google has yet to release an official statement on the future of PageRank, some of its employees have given their opinion on the issue. Matt Cutts, the head of the spam team at Google has talked about the algorithm publically. Towards the end of 2013, he replied to a Twitter question about PageRank and future updates by stating he ‘would be surprised’ if another update became available before 2014.  Not too long after this, he said that the ‘pipeline’ that Google uses in order to update PageRank is ‘broken’ and the company weren’t interested in fixing it.

John Mueller, a trends analyst at Google made a similar statement in early 2014. He said Google didn’t have any plans to update PageRank in the future.

Why?

When it comes to the eventual fate of PageRank the evidence seems clear but why has this happened? Whilst the algorithm is still used by Google employees, the company seem to be removing it from public use. One of the potential reasons behind this move could be due to the relationship that website owners have had with PageRank. Many users became obsessed with the algorithm and saw it as an overarching representation of the importance of their site. Some website owners also confused PageRank with their ranking within search engines. This was probably made worse by the double meaning of the name PageRank.

A much more serious problem with PageRank which was probably influential in Google’s overall decision to phase out the algorithm was spamming. With so many people looking to increase their PageRank score, spammers would offer links to highly ranked websites at a cost. This technique became rife and often users were purchasing links from websites that were banned from Googles search results but still highly ranked. With such blatant manipulation of the system taking place, it’s surprising that Google have waited this long to act on the issue. It is likely that in the future Google will completely remove PageRank from their toolbar.

Why Incentives Don’t Actually Motivate People to Do Better Work

Business is fuelled by productivity and companies are continually trying to find a way of inciting this within their workers. One of the most popular methods for boosting productivity is offering rewards to employees. These types of incentives typically revolve around money and usually include either pay rises, bonuses or a mixture of the two. Whilst it may seem like a forgone conclusion that more money would lead to better workers, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Financial incentives can cause a temporary boost to productivity but this doesn’t tend to last and often workers will slip back into old habits.

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg theorised that there are two distinct factors which effect job satisfaction. His Two Factor Theory states that motivators are aspects which increase job satisfaction and therefore productivity whereas hygiene factors can affect satisfaction and decrease productivity if they are not being met. Interestingly, Herzberg stated that salary was a hygiene factor and whilst it could discourage productivity, no pay rise would be high enough in order to boost productivity in the long run. Other hygiene factors along with salary include, job security, fringe benefits, status and working conditions.

Another theory which attempts to explain the factors which affect motivation within the workplace is the Job Characteristic theory from Oldman and Hackman. This theory hypothesises that there are five core job characteristics which affect issues such as motivation, turnover, satisfaction, performance and absenteeism. These characteristics include, task identity, task significance, feedback, autonomy and skill variety. Interestingly the theory doesn’t place any importance on salary or any other financial incentives. This supports Herzberg’s hypothesis that salary may not be the guiding factor behind productivity.

If we return to the Two Factor Theory, we can look at what Herzberg stated could boost productivity within the workplace. Motivators include factors such as recognition, involvement in decision making, challenging work and a sense that one is important within the company. So, you could say that hygiene factors such as salary are what get people into work each day but motivating factors are the reason they work hard.

This idea is supported by a piece of research carried out by Teresa Amabile from Harvard University. Her study involved testing 238 employees from seven different companies. During the study participants kept a diary of their workdays as well as ratings on emotion and motivation. All in all, Amabile assessed up to 12,000 diary entries and daily ratings and her findings were fairly conclusive. Overall, the study found that the single greatest affecter of positive emotions and high motivation was progress in ones work- however small.

Research into this issue has raised important questions about motivation and the workplace as a whole. It may be that a shift is required within the business sphere, from a punishment/reward system to one that focuses more on the individual worker and their attitude towards the job they are doing. Factors such as salary and bonuses are important but they aren’t the driving force behind overall job satisfaction and motivation.