How AI Could Help Farmers Grow More Crops

Smart tractors can plow fields by themselves

  • John Deere is offering its first AI-powered tractor that can be operated via a smartphone app.
  • There’s a growing movement to make farming more efficient using AI. 
  • Climate change and an increasing need for food are factors driving the move to high-tech farming.
Aerial view of plowed field with computer icons

Johner Images / Getty Images

Farming is going high-tech, thanks to recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI). 

John Deere is offering its first autonomous tractor that can be operated via a smartphone app. The autonomous tractor has six pairs of stereo cameras, which enables 360-degree obstacle detection and distance calculation. It’s part of a growing movement to make farming more efficient through the use of AI.

"AI allows farmers to precisely manage each section of the farm based on its unique conditions and needs," Gaurav Bansal, the director of engineering and autonomy at Blue River Technology, an intelligent machine company, told Lifewire in an email interview. "This helps farmers be more efficient in deploying resources, like planting crops only where they will successfully produce food and applying nutrients and crop protectants on individual plants."

Not Your Parent’s Tractor

Forget long days plowing the fields. To use the autonomous tractor, farmers only need to transport the machine to a desired location and configure it for autonomous operation. Using an app, they can swipe from left to right to start the machine, then leave the field to focus on other tasks while still monitoring the machine's status from their mobile device.

Images captured by the cameras are passed through a deep neural network that classifies each pixel in about 100 milliseconds. The AI then decides if the machine should move or stop, depending on if an obstacle is detected.

"In our new normal where agriculture meets drought, AI is a critical learning tool for America's specialty crop farmers."

"By being able to process data about microenvironments, agricultural robots can identify and enable the needed actions at a scope and speed beyond human capacity," Bansal said. "There are small windows of time to complete most tasks on the farm—so this also allows farmers to make sure they’re getting done what’s needed within these small windows to maximize their yield."

John Deere’s latest isn’t the only autonomous tractor on the market. FarmWise, for example, offers AI-driven, fully automated weeding tractors that use computer vision to identify plants, so it only pulls weeds.

"AI is also being used for seed engineering to power automated picking robots, crop optimization, and more," Jason Schoettler, a managing partner of Calibrate Ventures, a firm that focuses on AI and automation investments, told Lifewire via email.

AI to the Rescue

Experts say climate change and a growing need for food are additional factors driving the move to high-tech farming. The global population is expected to expand from about 8 billion to nearly 10 billion people by 2050, increasing the global food demand by 50 percent. 

Ceres Imaging, a California company that provides aerial imagery and AI to build irrigation management solutions for farmers, is feeling the pressure, too. John Bourne, the company’s vice president, told Lifewire in an email interview that water scarcity is creating a growing demand for Ceres products.

"In our new normal where agriculture meets drought, AI is a critical learning tool for America's specialty crop farmers," Bourne said. The AI can help farmers "quickly quantify patterns of stress, often plant-specific, prioritizing corrective actions which can dramatically improve water use efficiencies, and potentially save their orchards and vineyards."

With the help of AI, farmers can also analyze growing conditions—weather, water usage, soil conditions, pest and disease outbreaks—to help them make decisions throughout the growing season. This is something Intelinair, a company that uses machine learning to identify patterns in aerial imagery of fields, specializes in.

Tim Hassinger, CEO of Intelinair, explained to Lifewire via email that the company’s software can send farmers alerts to their smartphone, tablet, or desktop to see issues such as weeds, standing water, and nutrient deficiency before they harm crops. 

"This information helps farmers make decisions to increase operational efficiencies and improve crop yields," Hassinger said. "Farmers can intervene, rescue yield by detecting plant disease and pests early, capture learnings for the next growing season, and identify opportunities for more sustainable farming practices…"

"AI allows farmers to precisely manage each section of the farm based on its unique conditions and needs."

AI is also helping farmers from the air. Agricultural drones with autonomous operation capabilities are gaining popularity, especially with precision spraying of pesticides, Romeo Durscher, vice president at Auterion, a drone software maker, said in an email interview. 

"Oftentimes, farmers are unable to use ground vehicles on their fields after prolonged rain," Durscher added. "Being able to fly, inspect, and then deploy many aerial vehicles loaded with pesticides to treat targeted areas cuts down on time, hard human labor, and lowers the number of pesticides being used."

That said, there’s still a lot more development that needs to happen before farms are anywhere close to running themselves. Durscher said there needs to be better connectivity between the robotic units in the air and on the ground, as well as the AI and machine learning tools, which review data to make decisions on the next moves and take actions without human interaction. The AI-farming relationship can only improve from here.

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