A ‘thinking tractor’ and other smart farm gadgets

People looking at a large green tractor inside an exhibit hall (© Robert Lever/AFP/Getty Images)
At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, farm equipment maker John Deere displayed a combine harvester described as an “intelligent factory on wheels.” (© Robert Lever/AFP/Getty Images)

New agricultural technology from U.S. companies is rapidly changing life on the farm while increasing harvest yields and profits.

John Deere’s latest tractor combine thinks about how, when and where to cut a farmer’s field, making real-time decisions using GPS, artificial intelligence and other sensory technology.

“A farmer isn’t able to see every kernel as it makes its way through the different sections of the harvesting machine, and they might harvest a whole field before realizing there was something wrong,” said John Teeple, director of advanced technology at John Deere.

A high-definition camera on Deere’s self-driving combine zooms in on a wheat kernel, snaps a picture and sends the photo to a computer platform that uses artificial intelligence to determine which kernel-separating setting to select based on data that includes changing weather and soil conditions — even information gathered from nearby farms.

“These machines are now smart enough to realize these changes and automatically adjust settings,” Teeple said.

Robots lend a helping hand

Small farms and backyard gardeners, too, can reduce costs and boost harvests with U.S.-designed robots equipped with AI software.

The FarmBot, a robotic gardening system created by a small U.S. technology company, “can plant seeds with millimeter accuracy, measure soil moisture content, precisely water each plant according to its needs, use the camera to detect weeds, and then destroy them, too,” says the company’s founder, Rory Aronson, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, on a company video. The FarmBot design and technology are free to download, and farmers as far as Chile, Israel, India and Vietnam have put the technology to use.

After the robot plants, fertilizes, weeds and waters each plant in a backyard garden or on a small farm, it sends the grower a smartphone alert when the vegetables are ready to harvest.

Backyard gardeners can produce enough vegetables to feed a family of four, while emitting 25 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than commercially grown vegetables — even less if FarmBot is combined with solar power.

Teachers and professors around the world also use FarmBot as a STEM-based learning and research tool. Even NASA is working with FarmBot to explore what it might look like to raise vegetables in space.

This article was originally published on February 22, 2019.