David Yee, vice president of operations at PAMI (the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute), titled his presentation to an audience at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon on Wednesday referencing two iconic names: “Star Wars and Star Trek, How Precision Ag May Land in the Farm of the Future”.
He believes the high-tech fantasy realities in those television and movie series—or at least some parts of them—are coming close to reality for farmers—minus the light sabres and transporter beams, of course. While we may not be zooming across galaxies at light speed anytime soon, farming since the advent of mechanization has been a driving force in allowing for global population growth among other things, and the kind of technological advancements on the horizon may dwarf that success, Yee noted.
“We’re in the 232nd year of mechanization,” he said.” And that’s the success we’ve had farming. It’s really about this in my mind: Agriculture 4.0. With this technology, we’re sitting on the fourth age of agriculture. That’s where big data and big iron collide, with higher and higher resolution, getting right down to plant level.”
I’d have to say it’s pretty clear that we’re now swinging into a digital era in farm machinery technology and evolution. At almost all the major shows and product launches I’ve been to for some time now, the focus has been on new computer technologies that improve machine efficiency.
Yee points out that is only going to accelerate.
“There is a ton of money flowing into venture capital markets in this particular area,” he said. “We’ve seen Silicone Valley and technology companies throwing in hundreds of millions in the last three years. The venture capital markets see ag as a $245 billion opportunity. So you can see why people are getting lit up, why they want to come in.
“The ones who succeed the most will help the customer, the producer, manage risk. They all help the producer make better, informed decisions.”
Everything is pointing toward a greater degree of machine independence, if not complete autonomy. And what’s allowing that to advance more than anything is a focus on artificial intelligence.
“The emerging technology we’re seeing right now is machine vision,” Yee said. “It’s getting to a lower and deeper level: predictive analytics, artificial intelligence. It (a machine) is starting to think like people. So you can not only tell it what to do, but set it on a course and it learns on its own.”
To make AI work, computers need to understand the world around them, and the newest sensor technology provides that digital interface with the real world.“Take Agriculture 4.0 that I’ve been talking about, and it’s all driven by this: sensors,” he continued. “These sensors are coming to us, and they’re coming at us in everyday life.”
And equipment manufacturers have made good use of them, especially in the current offering of combines.
“Take Class 9 combines,” said Yee. “When we take a look at these three brands, nothing changed mechanically. Yes, horsepower went up, but that’s not a fundamental change. What they did do is they added a bunch of sensors. Current Class 9 machines have over 200 sensors. Some of them are pushing up to 300 sensors. It added bunch of secondary and ancillary value into the machines, and they thought it was okay to charge the producers for that. See how the marketplace responds?”
So Yee’s reference to Star Trek and Star Wars is an apt one. And I say it’s time we got into the spirit of things and embraced the idea. I’d even go so far as to suggest we replace the common handshake (which just transmits all those germs during cold and flu season anyway) with a greeting that is a spin on Mr. Spock’s Vulcan one. Just hold up your hand in that way he does with a space between the index and ring finger and say, “Farm long and prosper”.
If you just can get your hand to do that, I suggest it become socially acceptable to substitute that greeting with, “May the farm be with you”.