North Carolina: Emerging Technologies Shape Future of Farming

    As a kid growing up on a 640-acre farm in Kansas, Ron Heiniger loved it whenever he got a chance to drive a tractor or a combine. Today, kids may never get that chance, but not because Mom or Dad won’t allow it. It’s because the tractor may not need a driver.

    Welcome to the new age of agriculture, where tractors routinely rely on GPS to pilot themselves, and drones (or UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles) are increasingly used by farmers to survey their fields to pinpoint diseases or apply chemicals.

    Heiniger, a professor of crop science and a cropping systems specialist at the Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth, N.C., works with farmers to help them understand the different ways that new and emerging technologies can be used to help them increase the yield and profits on their farms.

    NC State magazine spoke with Heiniger about how today’s farmers are using the new technologies and how they are changing the face of modern agriculture.

    On identifying diseased plants: “When there are diseases in the field, often times that plant reflects light differently. You can use a sensor [on a drone] that measures how much light is reflected by a crop so you can tell where that disease is, pinpoint it in the field. Some diseases, such as potato blight, it’s not visual until it’s already infected the plant. So the plants wilt. With these sensors, we can measure the plants’ reflection before we can visually see it. Then we can treat it quicker.”

    On using drones: “In the future I see, a farmer pulls up in his pickup. But instead of getting out and wandering in the field, he launches his UAV and takes pictures of his field. If he sees problems, he zooms down to get a close-up picture. Then he loads the map [using GPS coordinates collected by the drone] into his sprayer and only puts the chemicals where he needs it. He may not even have to use a tractor. He may be using a small drone helicopter to apply the material. It changes the dynamics of timeliness and accuracy.”

    On the advantages of tractors that steer themselves: “It has reduced labor. It has made the use of fertilizers more efficient. In the past, there was no way to avoid overlaps or skips in the field. Now you can have it down to the inch. You have less overlap, less waste, less skips. The tractors can go faster in the fields, so you’re covering more acres in an hour.”

    On how farmers are adapting to the technology: “A farmer is a great entrepreneur. He knows when something is working for him and making him money. He’s a quick adapter.”

    On what’s next: “There are not many farmers who don’t have auto-steer tractors or sprayers. Looking into the crystal ball is getting more difficult. Things happen so fast you can’t even imagine it. In five to 10 years, these little UAVs will be in the back of nearly every pickup. There’s going to be an increasing reliance on automated systems and information. Farmers are going to spend more time looking at apps and computers, and less time driving the tractor. Today, your cell phone is a GPS receiver and a computer. In the future, you may just have a pair of Google glasses, so you won’t even have to hold a phone in your hand. I’m sure they’ll come up with some new way, maybe a hologram.”

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