Crop Harvesting with Autonomous Vehicles and Drones

Create: 11/03/2017 - 18:28
Hands Free Hectare smart ag

Photo: Hands Free Hectare


The automated farm has sprung to life this fall, as a farm in the United Kingdom became the first in the world to successfully plant, tend and harvest a crop entirely with autonomous vehicles and drones—and without a single person ever setting foot in the field.

The human workforce was replaced entirely by IoT tools operated from a team of engineers in a control room. These farming tools did everything from sowing the seeds to picking the grain. The project, called Hands Free Hectare (HFHa), was completed in October and had a yield of 4.5 tons of barley, according to news releases.

The automated farm was a joint venture by Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England, and Precision Decisions, a farming technology specialist based in York, UK. The project, which cost approximately UK£200k, was funded by Precision Decisions and the UK funding agency Innovate UK. It used machinery that was readily available for farmers to buy, including open source technology and an autopilot from a drone for the navigation system.

hands-free tractor

Photo: Hands Free Hectare

Autonomous, Lightweight Tractor

The project team used a customized Iseki tractor for spraying, drilling and rolling. The tractor is smaller and lighter than most tractors used in the industry. The team kept the idea that smaller was better in place with its customized harvester, too, staying true to the concept that the use of smaller—and smart—agricultural machines could improve soil and plant health, ultimately leading to a better yield.

Jonathan Gill, researcher at Harper Adams University, said in a statement, “There’s been a focus in recent years on making farming more precise. But larger machines are not compatible with this method of working. They’re also so heavy that they are damaging farmers’ soils.”

Gill noted that the weather is a big issue when farming, as only small windows are available for work to be completed because of the rains in the location they chose. “The rainy weather is part of the reason machines have been getting so much bigger. Farmers here need to be able to complete work quickly. The autonomous vehicles solve that issue.

“In the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles. These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically, instead of having to drive up and down the fields,” Gill adds.

hands-free drone

Photo: Hands Free Hectare

At Hands Free Hectare, agronomists and engineers used the small customized tractors along with several drones to cultivate the barley from an area roughly equivalent to two and a half acres. Drones with multispectral sensors took aerial images of the field. Smaller machines at crop level took samples to assess what fertilizers to apply and where. The team also used live camera feeds to detect invasive weeds or disease.

Hands-free Farming

Autonomous farming tools and the IoT are taking root in all areas of agriculture, continuing to transform the industry and how it does business. According to BI Intelligence, IoT device installations in agriculture are expected to increase from 30 million in 2015 to 75 million in 2020, for a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent. 

While the majority of the attention paid to IoT-powered technology investment in agriculture has been focused on improvements related to increasing the yield in precious crops, IoT also offers farmers savings in labor costs. The rising cost of labor is a huge driver in the field of agriculture technology, explains Matt Nielsen of Autonomous Solutions, in a recent article. Autonomous Solutions is a Utah-based company that converts vehicles from manual to robotic control. "Autonomous vehicles (on the farm) make sense when you compare the cost of technology to the cost of labor."

With the success of the first automated harvest, Hands Free Hectare plans to continue its research into development of more farming technology. The team also intends to plant a full crop of winter wheat using the same methods. In the meantime, the team says they plan to celebrate their success in IoT by brewing their own beer—made from their first barley harvest.

Put a Stake in the Ground in Ag IoT

Dig up more about the automated farming harvest and the solutions used by the team at Hands Free Hectare or follow their progress on Twitter @FreeHectare.

Learn more about Precision Decisions IoT ag technology, including:

  • Guidance and auto-steering
  • Online mapping portal, MiFarm
  • Telematics and GPS trackers
  • Soil sampling
  • Precision farming data services.

The Food Industry Gets Smart with Labeling

Create: 10/05/2017 - 20:28

Image: Intel Corp.

Smart labels use technology that reaches beyond standard bar codes. With spoil detection-based smart labels, detailed product information is stored in a chip, allowing consumers and businesses to use their smartphones, computers or scanners to pull information that determines the quality and age of the food.

These labels can also provide real-time tracking of products, security assurance against theft, enhancements to the aesthetic appeal of the label, and give manufacturers the ability to re-program.

Enhancing the Personality of a Beer Bottle

One of the first examples of the use of smart labels in the beverage industry comes from Anhueser-Busch, who created a special, limited-edition bottle for its Oculto brand beer.

The company explained the details of its unique packaging approach in a report in Packaging Digest. It set out to create an illuminated bottle to differentiate the beer—and brand—for consumers. Anheuser-Busch partnered with Inland Packaging to leverage smart label technology. The label contained printed electronic pathways, paper batteries, micro switches and LED lights, which came together using a pressure-sensitive label design.

The smart label designers placed the pressure switch where the consumer’s thumb naturally falls while holding a beer bottle. When pressed, the LED lights begin to shine through the eyes of the mask on the front of the bottle, illuminating for about three to four seconds.

“This marks the first time Anheuser-Busch has incorporated the smart label and Internet of Things technology with one of our brands,” says Mallika Monteiro, senior brand director of Oculto. “Specifically, it is the first time we’ve leveraged IoT technology with a bottle scan for one of our brands.”

The company hasn’t stopped there with IoT innovation. In June, its Anheuser-Busch InBev group announced plans for a smart refrigerator business that supplies offices with a variety of beer brands. Using smart label technology, the machine monitors how many beers are left, automatically sending out an order when stock runs low. 

Printed vs. Silicon Sensors: Which is Best?

Smart labels can be made from a variety of materials, and the current debate in the food industry is between printed sensors and silicon-based versions. Printed sensor technology is restricted to the amount of memory it can hold, but it is ever-developing. The affordability and ease of production is leading to broader adoption, which is further driving down the price for printed sensors. Traditional silicon-based sensors are also a great option, but are more expensive and less amenable to the demands required for food packaging.

In a recent article in Forbes, Mike Kavis, vice president and principal architect for Cloud Technology Partners, states, “Sensors come in many shapes and sizes. Traditional silicon-based sensors are a great fit for many IoT use cases but remain more expensive and less flexible than a new breed of printed sensor technology. Printed sensors are becoming an affordable, innovative alternative that might just radically change the landscape for the Internet of connected things.”

Smart Labels on the Rise

According to the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), approximately 80 percent of products belonging to food and beverages, pet and personal care, and household verticals will feature a smart label within the next five years. Leading food manufacturing brands, including Hershey, Kellogg, The J.M. Smucker Company and Nestle have started using smart labels.

Smart labels aren’t just for show, as they can monitor temperature, distribution and product freshness. Major food distributors are now partnering with packaging specialists to create specific smart label solutions. A leading U.S.-based logistics company, PakSense, joined forces with Thinfilm and now offers smart labels to food companies specifically for temperature monitoring. Start-up smart label company Flexstr8 in El Segundo, CA, provides NFC-enabled labels for a variety of consumer products, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. It has a temperature logging smart label that can capture the complete temperature history and store it in a label. Meat and poultry producer Tyson Foods has recently added a QR code to some of its chicken products to support expansion in the Chinese market, where consumers prefer to buy very fresh poultry products.


 Image: Intel Corp.

Smart Labels Are the Intelligent Choice

Smart labels are helpful for stores as well as manufacturers. The current smart label solutions can reduce the amount of fresh produce that a store has to dispose of each week. A smart label can also help guarantee that perishable products are securely packaged and are able to reach customers in ideal condition. And it can provide the optimum temperature for the retailer to store and display its beverages and/or food products in the warehouse and in the aisles.

A range of companies now offer smart label solutions that provide temperature indicators for cold or hot requirements. New generations of labels also allow for better food freshness, such as anti-microbial labels, oxygen-absorbing labels, moisture-absorbing labels and leaking indicator labels. Companies are also developing scavenging labels, which extend freshness and protect against mold growth and other spoilage.

If smart labels take off in the food supply chain, they could help take a bite out of the $640 worth of food the average American family throws out each year, an estimate from a 2016 study from Plastics Make It Possible, an advocacy organization of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

The availability of smart sensors is extending the reach of IoT from the production lines to the grocery store shelves. These next-generation labels provide both consumers and companies within the food and beverage industry a broad scope of benefits, allowing access to detailed product information, and helping to reduce food and beverage waste.

Get the Key Ingredients in Smart Labels

Learn more about the latest IoT food and beverage retail solutions, including smart labels and electronic shelf labels, from Intel. 

Precision Forestry: Drones Optimize Tree Planting

Create: 09/08/2017 - 15:56

Photo: DroneSeed


Trees play a vital role in the carbon cycle of the earth, as they embody some of the world’s largest carbon sinks. According to studies from Yale, each year we have a net loss of 6 billion trees. This reduction and ongoing demolition of trees has drastically and negatively altered many of the earth’s ecosystems. Concurrently, not enough workers are available to replant and maintain upkeep in the forestry industry. Hand planting trees is a slow—and expensive—process.

Drones and data analytics are sprouting up as cost-effective and smart solutions for planting new trees. Drones can sow tree seeds where no man or woman can even reach, opening up areas that were previously deemed unviable for new growth. In addition, these specialty drones are fast and furious when it comes to dropping seed pods and can plant 100,000 trees per day.

Swarms for Spraying and Planting

DroneSeed and technology developed by BioCarbon Engineering are two of the leading solutions paving the way for sustainable responses to this global issue of reforestation. DroneSeed began as a small startup company based in Seattle, WA. Now it’s becoming one of the biggest industry leaders, as it has developed an IoT-based solution that has drastically decreased associated financial costs and labor needed to maintain a healthy forest ecosystem.

Smart Ag DroneSeed

Photo: DroneSeed

According to DroneSeed, the company’s niche is precision forestry, also known as forestry analytics, that it defines as:

  • Forestland analysis
  • Planting
  • Care by drone.

DroneSeed aims to repair and assist the forest industry as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Their drones are comprised of sensors that have the capability to construct 3D maps of highly logged regions. With the assistance of these sensors, the drones can construct intricately detailed maps, which in turn helps approximate the location of “microsites.” Microsites signify locations where future trees have the highest survival chance.

The company starts the process by using drone swarms as spraying units for invasive species, which is the first step in reforestation. The drones used for spraying can later be equipped with a module that uses compressed air to fire tree seeds targeted at specific microsites.

Industrial-Scale Reforestation

Biocarbon Engineering based in Oxford, UK, is another leader in the sustainable forestry industry. According to CEO Lauren Fletcher, the company’s drones are very efficient, in terms of the labor and financial costs typically associated with planting trees. He stated in a recent news report that its drones “plant at 10 times the rate of hand planting, and at 20 percent of the cost.”

These smart drones can significantly increase efficiency and decrease the financial cost of the planting process, especially in highly inaccessible areas, such as regions with difficult terrain and unstable weather patterns. The drone-planting process created by Biocarbon Engineering is scalable, making it a sustainable mechanism for addressing the alarmingly large gap between the amount of trees destroyed and the number replanted on an annual basis.

Smart Ag BioCarbon Engineering

Photo: BioCarbon Engineering

The BioCarbon Engineering planting system uses multiple drones and Big Data for planting optimization. The firing/planting drone follows a pre-set planting pattern determined from an algorithm, which uses information from a separate scanning drone. The scanning drone can map an area within minutes.

Fletcher, an engineer who worked at NASA for two decades on projects such as the International Space Station and some of the robotics used on Mars, knows quite a bit about what can happen when developers apply automated engineering and IoT technology to biological systems. He recently highlighted the scale and impact of the drones, stating, “We're firing at one a second, which means a pair of operators will be able to plant nearly 100,000 trees per day. So 60 teams like this will get us to a billion trees a year.”

Go Green with Precision Forestry

  • Learn more about DroneSeed technology and its applications and data collection.
  • For footage of drones developed by DroneSeed, watch this video.
  • Grow your knowledge of 3D drone mapping, planting biodegradable seedpods, monitoring and data collection from BioCarbon Engineering.


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