Fieldside Assistance: The agricultural vehicles embracing IoT to fix themselves

When you’re responsible for feeding the nation, there’s no time to lose. Every farm has a tight schedule to maintain and it’s a race against time to ensure that the crops are sown, grown and harvested effectively. No farmer has 20-20 foresight and no existing system is 100% efficient. That’s why the future of farming is digital, with connected tractors part of the new way of getting more value from farming manpower. By Jonathan Henry, UK&I MD, John Deere.

Timings are particularly important because you can’t tell mother nature to hold her horses when you’re not ready. A missed window could be disastrous for the profitability of a farm. For example, if you only have a week to sow a specific crop and your planting system breaks down, this could have huge implications for the yield.

This year in particular was a key one for the agriculture sector. The harsh winter meant there was a greater concentration of work that had to be done in the spring. Workers couldn’t get it done any earlier. It resulted in the biggest spring sowing campaign in 20 years. And bearing in mind the fact that in the UK, around 50% of arable farms would be winter cropping, there was a huge demand for resource in the spring. And then COVID-19 hit and things got even worse.

COVID-19 has upturned supply chains around the world. Retailers have grappled with spikes in demand or uneven supply. Meanwhile, farmers have struggled with both labour and demand, as travel restrictions and restaurant closures hit home. This year’s harvest continues under difficult conditions in the UK and Ireland. Although the global pandemic has provided a rude awakening for the entire industry, there are also lessons to be learnt. And there is in fact optimism for the future in the way farmers can adopt technology and become better connected with their operations, their crops and their bottom line as a result.

Socially distanced yet empowered

Whilst we’re all familiar with the notion of a connected car; one that can be remotely monitored and controlled from your smartphone—a quiet connected revolution is occurring in our fields too. Today’s modern farming equipment is connected and self-managing. Professionals can remotely monitor fleets across farms for hardware issues or performance malfunctions. Farmers can identify faults in real-time and manage them before they become serious. And when maintenance is done pre-emptively using real-time data, before a tractor breaks down unexpectedly, it means there’s no need to miss a vital sowing window due to machinery down time.

It isn’t just the performance monitoring aspect of connected tractors that is innovative. Farmers, particularly in the COVID-19 context, have benefitted from the connected way that problems are fixed. Aside from the biggest farming enterprises which may run their own control centres, most entrust the ongoing maintenance and servicing of their machines to

an external operator. In these cases, even though many of the technicians were working from home during the lockdown, they could carry out diagnostics remotely.

That’s where the flexibility lies; technicians can do tasks like this anywhere in the world, as long as they have an internet connection. And in the cases where they do have to come on site to perform a physical fix, they can arrive with foreknowledge of the problem their fixing and therefore can show up with the correct parts with them. They can use GPS to find the relevant tractor instantly, which can be a huge time-saver on a large farm. This also enables them to observe social distancing.

Then there are those who are just getting into the world of connected tractors. We’ve been able to carry out socially distanced training to users without even being on site. Trainers can gain remote access to the cab screen in the new machinery and deliver live training that helps workers to make the most of their new tractors straight away. We’ve seen an increased interest in connected products during the pandemic as more people investigate ways of becoming smarter by overcoming the obstacles thrown at them by COVID-19.

Automation fuels accuracy

In an industry where businesses manage acres of space and produce enough crops to feed hundreds of people, a few centimetres can make all the difference. Farmers are fighting harder than ever before to protect their ever-tight margins and know the slightest of tweaks can make a world of difference. The most efficient farms know that they can no longer rely on brute force to increase their yield. There’s only so many workers you can employ, there’s only so many hours in a day. With this in mind, finding the best ways to use the people and the acreage you already have, will be the key to the future.

That’s why farming is changing for the better. Solutions are available to reach this objective and new technologies are coming on-stream to help farms make efficiency improvements.

Automation will give huge amounts of benefit to farmers looking for this enhanced level of precision. Combining autonomous tractors with GPS and correction signals directs vehicles through a field with complete accuracy. At the same time, the driver is given the capacity to work on other tasks while in the cab. Thanks to networking with other machines and consultants, the driver can plan further cultivation measures, for example. All of this saves time which farmers can use to sell their next harvest, safe in the knowledge that the task at hand is inch perfect.

More autonomy in the farmer's job means the industry will become more sustainable, more economical and more environmentally friendly - because every plant will and must be treated in the best possible way.

The AI future

Then there’s artificial intelligence, which can have huge benefits for farming. Everything from soil analysis to weed detection to plant health management can be carried out using

smart technology. In doing so, it becomes possible to treat local conditions for individual plants or each harvested grain.

AI works in farming by removing the guesswork and relying on data gathered from the field. This means farmers can make decisions based on intelligence rather than ‘red sky at night’ -type generalities. For instance, the farm's sensor and information systems can permanently analyse the development of yield or yield potential. If the result is not optimal, the intelligent systems can suggest to the farmer what measures they should take or change to achieve an economically better harvest result.

Take it one step further. Camera shots from the field can distinguish crops from weeds, and after comparing those images with pictures on a database, AI can order plants to be sprayed selectively with herbicides. This puts an end to broad area application which is both time consuming and wasteful.

On one hand, farmers will feel as those they’ve been beaten from pillar to post with merciless obstacles to profitability. This is truer now than ever for many in the industry who are languishing thanks to COVID-19 and other market forces. But on the other hand, we’ve never had at our disposal the tools to be smarter and get more for less – the Holy Grail of farming. Demands are being placed on farmers not just to produce more, but to do so responsibly. The introduction of connectivity to farms makes them more efficient but also more accountable, with more data and insights than ever.

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