How technology is changing agriculture
By Randeep Thandi
Farms.com Co-op student
Daniel McCann, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Precision A.I (an artificial intelligence and robotics company which focuses on solving the key food security challenges of the 21st century) had the opportunity to speak on the influence artificial intelligence (AI) has on agriculture at Canada’s Farm Show Virtual Conference held in mid-June.
McCann spoke on the misconceptions of AI, how its currently applied in agriculture, the philosophical importance of AI in agriculture, why it is imperative for agriculture AI to improve, and what the timeline looks like.
McCann suggested that when thinking about artificial intelligence, most people have a perceptive bias as to what we picture. In our minds, we think of robots, self-driving cars, touchless systems, etc. And while that is all true, the concept of artificial intelligence is simpler.
Artificial intelligence reads our behaviours, studies our patterns, and optimizes our content and work so that we consume information most relevant to us. When it gets paired with robotics, that is when it becomes powerful. That is when you can use it to automate difficult or menial tasks with precision.
Humans can process data faster than artificial intelligence, to an extent. When it comes to massive amounts of data, that’s when AI is so much more powerful. Agriculture is an industry perfectly equipped for the benefits of AI. There are about a 1-1.5 million wheat plants per acre. To collect data on the large amounts of crops, AI is necessary, humans do not have the ability to process that much information.
In precision farming, drones can be used to survey fields and process the images. The AI analyzes the field to locate areas with different levels of moisture, weed levels, wheat pressure, or any other selective study. With this information, humans can identify areas that need specific fertilizers, predict yield, and make decisions that are much more efficient.
Additional applications include the use of soil & weather sensors to measure soil health and moisture levels, satellites images to study drainage optimization, and self-driving vehicles such as tractors to combat labour shortages common with many farmers.
McCann emphasized the philosophical capabilities of humans’ vs AI. Certain outcomes within agriculture simply cannot be achieved without the technology he says. It has been an evolutionary change. At first, humans were very “tools” orientated, in the sense that physical human labour done individually would be the process to achieve results. Recently, humans became service orientated, outsourcing tasks to be done by specialized workers. Now, we ask for outcomes.
Several big players in precision AI are selling outcomes to a farmer, rather than a product or a service. The only way we can achieve this level of maturity of guarantee mass results is through artificial intelligence, because there is just too much data for humans to do it independently.
AI has made significant strides in industries such as engineering, media, and even medicine. In the agriculture industry, humans are still in that “tools” mindset, attempting to do everything on their own. McCann says it is not very capital or labour efficient.
However, agriculture’s importance to the world is second to none. many experts predict that by 2050, the total population is projected to grow to almost 10 billion, which means there will an increased need for food production.
The issue lies in changing consumer demands. Consumers now want less chemicals used on their foods and more alternative ways of crop growth. Farmers use chemicals to facilitate crop growth and produce more. With a rising population, balancing the two is becoming challenging. But with technology, the industry has plenty of room for improvement to meet both needs.
According to MCCann, up to 80% of spray in broadcast chemical application is wasted on bare soil, increasing crop input costs by 30%. With fully autonomous crop protection, targeted weed spray reduces chemical overload, reduces cost, and creates more crop growth.
Reaching a time where AI is in full control of farms will not be tomorrow, and it will not be next year, but change is coming quickly.
McCann predicts autonomous farm equipment will be on majority of farms in about 10 years. Investment in farming technology grows exponentially, and in as little as 15 years, traditional pieces of equipment like the broadcast sprayer will be around but much less common.
Change will be seen in incremental steps, and the transformational power of AI will make farming more efficient, cost effective, and produce better food for the world.
To watch the Dan McCann’s presentation, please visit https://canadasfarmshowvirtual.ca/on-demand/ .
Randeep Thandi is a co-op student with Farms.com. Farms.com welcomes co-op students throughout the year.