The road to precision farming

Step-by-step levels of automation serve as a roadmap to the applications, functionality and agricultural benefits of introducing precision farming techniques.
Read time 7min 10sec

In my last Industry Insight, I introduced the concept of precision farming and how it can be tailored to result in increased operational efficiency. In this article, I will discuss automation and how introducing autonomy to agricultural processes is important in creating a full industrial Internet of things environment.

Automation encompasses a wide spectrum of capabilities, making it an accessible option for farming operations of any size or background. Autonomy will help to give farmers a place from which to continue building to their automation goals in a steady, controlled process.

The following step-by-step levels of automation serve as a roadmap to the applications, functionality and agricultural benefits of introducing precision farming techniques of varying intensities.

Level one: Stationary autonomy

Some of the most basic, yet most effective autonomous farming equipment, is static. This stationary equipment is simple to install and records critical agricultural data, alerting farmers to important changes that could impact their operations and productivity.

Permanent soil sensors

Static soil sensors detect a wide variety of soil characteristics, from moisture levels to chemical presence to nutrients.

Moisture sensors reduce the risk of human error when it comes to irrigation and can result in a 40% improvement in water efficiency, while electrochemical soil sensors monitor pH and nutrient levels by detecting specific ions and chemicals present in the ground.

Installing these data-collecting sensors allows farmers to monitor soil health and determine when fields are inhospitable to specific crops, always maximising crop health and yield. In later stages, these sensors can be paired with GPS and other aerial mapping technologies to give farmers a dynamic ‘soil map’ of their land.

E-Silo technology

Large amounts of silage are highly difficult to track and monitor with traditional farming technology. Tracking devices can transform ordinary silos into E-Silos, capable of reporting a multitude of real-time metrics on the grain or corn being stored.

The ultimate level of automation in precision farming is a fully autonomous operation.

From volume, to temperature, to date added, E-Silo technology gives farmers a 360-degree view of their silage for maximum efficiency.

Stationary security cameras

Security cameras may be necessary for large farms with many assets. By utilising autonomously connected cameras, farmers can reduce instances of theft and more easily recover stolen equipment.

When cameras are running on an autonomous, high-bandwidth farm network, they can ensure each area of the farm is properly surveilled, streaming and storing unique footage in real-time with very little overlap.

Level two: Semi-autonomous machinery

Once stationary precision farming equipment is installed, the next step is to introduce semi-autonomous machinery. This moving agricultural equipment is partially autonomous, but must be supervised and/or managed by a human worker, making it an ideal transition phase for those interested in full automation.

Today, the cost of such self-driving or self-sensing technology is dropping, which also makes it an appealing solution for smaller farmers who want to advance their operations.

Self-driving tractors

Tractor suppliers are beginning to include GPS, built-in sensors and variable-rate technology in their equipment, which allow tractors to navigate fields autonomously and work together to till, seed and plant, ensuring no arable land or resources are wasted.

Many of these guided tractors require operator supervision on a tablet or desktop, and some require a ride-along operator. If an obstacle arises, the tractor’s software notifies operators so they can intercede and manually override the tractor’s guided controls.

Unmanned ground vehicles

Often, compact unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are used for security purposes. UGV can patrol a farm compound semi-autonomously, relying on an operator to remotely coordinate their efforts and view UGV video in real-time.

As UGVs become more common in agricultural environments, their capabilities may expand to include planting, weeding and other basic farming tasks with precision, accuracy and speed.

Level three: Single-task autonomous fleets

In the next level of precision farming technology, autonomous farming robots and other equipment works together to complete simple tasks. These small, lightweight machines perform manual labour that would otherwise be done by humans or a single piece of large machinery, which reduces ground compression to promote healthy crops.


Unmanned aerial vehicles are now being designed specifically for agricultural purposes, especially crop spraying. A single drone can cover 7-10 acres per hour and distribute over 7.57 litres of liquid.

A swarm of these drones use radar to keep a proper distance from the crop when spraying, and their settings can range from autonomous to semi-autonomous for transitioning farming operations. Drone fleets equipped with cameras can also be used to inspect topography, soil and crop growth.

Precision planters

Fleets of precision planters use GPS technology and sensors to place seeds in the soil with the highest degree of precision and speed.

By maximising field space and yields, farmers can ensure they see a significant ROI from autonomous precision planters.


Agricultural robots work in tandem to perform single tasks. They can take many forms, but one of the most popular is precision milking robots.

Dairy farms can utilise robots with sensors, lasers and archived data about individual cows to milk each cow successfully, applying the right amount of pressure and extracting an appropriate amount of milk.

Level four: Complex autonomous equipment

This level of autonomy enables machinery to perform tasks that humans cannot − often multiple tasks at once − and does not require the assistance of a human operator.

Pruning, weeding and soil-monitoring AI UGV

An autonomous vine-pruning ground vehicle was recently prototyped in a French vineyard. The vehicle can cut excess greenery precisely every five seconds while also taking measurements of the soil and removing dead shoots.

Powered by location tracking, six cameras and AI mapping, the autonomous vehicle collects, stores and memorises data about each vine. Its multi-tasking autonomy is an advanced example of the future of fully autonomous unmanned ground vehicles.

Mobile power platforms

In July 2017, a Canadian engineer unveiled a mobile power platform that connects to compatible agriculture equipment and enhances them with autonomous operations, long-range sensors, data processing and decision-making capabilities.

Once a farmer programs the field’s layout into the system, he can simply watch the equipment till, plant and harvest. This sort of investment in autonomous farming allows farmers to maintain their current fleets while gaining precision farming awareness and functionality.

Autonomous irrigation

Researchers in Chile have developed an autonomous irrigation system that can save 70% more water than other irrigation systems. The system relies on wireless sensors to take precise moisture measurements and ensure efficiency, greatly reducing water waste.

Not only can these irrigation systems limit water usage, but their enhanced monitoring process can also provide improved documentation for sustainability regulations related to irrigation systems.

Level five: Fully autonomous operations

The ultimate level of automation in precision farming is a fully autonomous operation. Advanced agricultural operations may invest solely in autonomous equipment that performs all functions to enhance speed, increase productivity and yield, power sustainable practices, gather farm data for insight and visibility, keep costs low, and easily maintain regulatory compliance.

100% automated farms

In Japan, a vegetable production operation has gone completely automated. Production of lettuce and other greens is stacked to take up less land, and everything from planting to watering to pruning to harvesting is done by autonomous machinery.

By automating every part of their planting, growing and harvesting, the farming environment saves time, costs and resources, solving major modern agricultural challenges along the way.

Fully automated crops

In the UK, an experimental research farm harvested its first fully automated crop, reaping close to five tons of spring barley. Experts outfitted standard machinery with robotic technology in order to transform it into fully autonomous equipment that operates without any human intervention.

The goal of this operation is to learn more about how automation can improve yields for the future of farming with precision fertilisation and soil quality improvements. Scientists believe the use of smaller, more compact machinery enhances speed, efficiency and precision.

In the next article in this series I will discuss agricultural network requirements and obstacles.

Teresa Huysamen

Head of the wireless and surveillance business unit, Duxbury Networking.

Teresa Huysamen is head of the wireless and surveillance business unit at Duxbury Networking. She has been part of the IT sector for the past 26 years – 15 of which have been at Duxbury – and is passionate about her role in the industry. As part of the product, marketing and sales cycle, she is focused on meeting customer needs with innovative technology.

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