10 July 2018 - 15:45
The agricultural revolution
Self-driving tractors, use of drones for targeted treatments and crop monitoring
A great technological revolution is affecting agriculture, although we don’t hear much about it outside the sector. While there is a lot of public debate when it comes to GMOs or chemistry, on the industrial front, including tractors, operating machinery and now drones, the enormous progress made in recent years is literally transforming farmers and agricultural businesses, making them more like their counterparts in advanced industry.
The primary sector, as it is still called, has lost many of its original characteristics and is increasingly an incubator of technology, science and advanced knowledge. For a start, drones are becoming ever more popular in agriculture. These flying machines remotely piloted from the ground can be equipped with thermal cameras and other optical sensors that can detect the visible and infrared light reflected by vegetation. Taking advantage of the fact that during normal photosynthetic activity foliage reflects light at different wavelengths, we can calculate ratios, the most well-known of which is the NDVI (Normalised Difference Vegetation Index), to assess the health of the plant.
Using these advanced mappings of soil and crops we can thus draw up the so-called prescription maps (used for fertilisation, sowing or variable-rate irrigation).
Again, with the help of drones we can build maps of soil variability obtained from joint analysis with georeferenced soil samples, to define the chemical and physical characteristics of the soil. Finally, drones are used for the biological fight against specific parasites allowing the fast and targeted distribution of the so-called antagonists. However, the advantages of having an overhead view certainly go beyond drones. The dense network of satellites upon which the GPS (global positioning system) is based lies a few dozen miles above the planet’s surface. We experience this system every day when using our smartphone or our car’s navigator to tell us where we are, how fast we are going and the route to our destination.
It is the GPS that is at the heart of the concept of driverless vehicles, which we now hear a lot about in the case of cars, but which is already a reality in the field of agricultural vehicles. Tractors with or without cabs that can work day and night, carrying out almost all the main work (ploughing, harrowing, sowing, harvesting to name but a few) are now supervised by a remote operator, but will very likely soon go about their tasks in full autonomy. The major manufacturers are working on this.
But even with the traditional concept of driving, if we climb into a new generation tractor we immediately see that the console looks more like that of an aeroplane than that of an old crawler of 30 years ago equipped with a myriad of handles and a single engine running time counter. This is to emphasize that today’s operators are required very different skills from those of the last century.
All this leads to greater efficiency, lower costs (including environmental costs), greater productivity and yields and, let’s not forget, greater safety given the high frequency of accidents in the agricultural sector and the high cost in terms of serious injuries and fatalities that unfortunately have always characterised this sector. The benefits for the environment and thus for the industry and the community derive both from the new technology’s smaller ecofootprint and from a lower impact in terms of directly or indirectly mutualised social costs.
Learn more about using drones at the page Generali is a pioneer in the use of drones to manage claims.