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The digital farm of the (very near) future

The digital farm of the (very near) future
New sensor technology enables precision agriculture

New technologies make it possible to collect continuous streams of environmental data. Scientists are helping farmers apply these new tools to manage soil, water, and crops in ever-changing weather and climate.

The digital farm of the future uses all kinds of sensors—drones, fiber-optic cables, radio-frequencies—to collect all kinds of sensory information. But what does a farmer do with all this information? Chad Higgins, an environmental engineer at Oregon State, helps make sense of sensory data. “We turn mountains of data into pearls of wisdom,” he says.

Higgins heads the NEWAg Lab (Nexus of Energy, Water, and Agriculture) in OSU’s Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, a laboratory for precision agriculture. “New sensors make it possible to measure more things than the human brain can comprehend. We need new ways to process this information to sort out what is important,” Higgins says.

In the digital farm of the future, sensory data are streamed into models that compare incoming information over time to offer a picture of environmental conditions as they change, over hours, days, or years. Computerized adaptive neural networks help farmers make the best decisions possible, with the best data available, adapted to specific in-field conditions…delivered to your smart phone.

illustration of plants with digital monitoring

The digital farm of the (very near) future. Legend below. (Illustration by Erik Simmons.)

  1. Unmanned aerial vehicles carry cameras and recorders that pick up signals from sensors in the field
  2. Soil moisture sensors and rain gauges help validate effective vegetative filter strips along highways, among other things
  3. Wind sensors help unravel the dynamics of local micrometeorology that occur at the boundary of land and atmosphere
  4. Fiber optic cables record highly precise distributed air temperature readings close to the ground
  5. Fluorescent microspheres scanned with lasers reveal pathogen transport between plants
  6. Radio frequency identification traces individual units of agricultural crops from field to market for improved food safety
  7. Pressure sensors in snowpack reveal fluctuations that drive melting and sublimation of snow
  8. Satellites measure many things, including evaporation from irrigated fields
  9. Adaptive neural networks interpret large amounts of complex data from sensors. A form of artificial intelligence, they evaluate incoming data and make network adjustments based on continuous learning.
  10. Smart phones present a summary of the current scenarios to the farm manager, with three potential management strategies, along with near-term and long-term impacts of the strategy.