Automated greenhouses, UAVs touted as vital tools for feeding world

by John Hart for southeastfarmpress.com

Sustainably feeding a growing global population is the most significant challenge today, and precision agriculture is a way to address the challenge, speakers at a forum on agricultural biotechnology in Research Triangle Park, N.C. emphasized.

Experts speaking at the forum Jan. 27 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center highlighted automated greenhouses and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as tools that are vital for feeding a world population that is expected to grow by 2 billion in 25 to 30 years.

Todd DeZwaan, automated greenhouse strategy lead at Monsanto in Research Triangle Park, said the challenge is that agriculture needs to double food supplies by 2050 on existing agricultural land. DeZwaan stressed that state of the art technology such as the automated greenhouse is vital for increasing corn and soybean yields.

“More than any other time in human history a greater percentage of the human population is pulling itself out of poverty into prosperity,” DeZwaan said. “And when they do that, they begin to stabilize their diets and begin consuming more protein which adds pressure to the future of agriculture as more soy and corn is being shifted to produce animal feed instead of feeding people.”

DeZwaan explained that the automated greenhouse at Monsanto’s Research Triangle Park location allows the company to make better decisions for products and materials to advance for commercial development. The automated greenhouse uses advanced data analytics to make the best agronomic decisions for the products Monsanto is developing, he said.

“At the heart of the automated greenhouse is advanced imaging capabilities that we customize specifically for phenotyping crop species,” he said. “It allows us to very accurately quantify plant growth and development milestones such as plant height and canopy area as well as key reproductive milestones like flowering.”

A key job of the greenhouse is to allow Monsanto to identify drought tolerant seeds.

DeZwaan said drought is the most significant challenge corn faces year-on-year so Monsanto conducted a recent experiment where 55 corn hybrids were run through the automated greenhouse under standard and water-stressed conditions. Such research is vital for identifying drought-tolerant germplasm and for developing biotech products with drought tolerance, he said.

“The greenhouse can be used to identify products that we can then bring together to help farmers make best decisions for the material that they are planting on their acres,” DeZwaan said. “We can  use this precision phenotyping to very early on in the product development pipeline identify the things that are working well, eliminate things that are working poorly and make early decisions that are going to impact  later product development.”

UAVs are also a must for increasing yields on existing acreage, with Wes Everman, Extension weed specialist at North Carolina State University, noting that the technology will allow farmers to increase their efficiency and reduce costs.

The benefit of UAVS is that they give 100 percent coverage of the field which scouting alone cannot do, Everman said.

“Often times when we go out scouting, we look at just a fraction of the field. We go across it one or two times. We don’t see the whole field. We might miss some of the hot spots so UAVs give us 100 percent coverage to see the whole picture going on,” he said

He explained that UAVs offer high spatial resolution, greater temporal resolution and low cost, compared to satellites and airplanes. He noted that temporal resolution is important because it allows UAVS to identify individual plants.

“Ground resolution makes the big difference,” Everman said. “With a satellite we are looking at about one meter square resolution, three feet by three feet. With an airplane, we can see a half meter square, just under two feet by two feet. UAVs provide much finer resolution square, about a quarter meter square or even less, less than 1 foot by a foot. You can now look at individual plants.”

PrecisionHawk is company based in Raleigh that specializes in UAVs for agriculture. Juan Jimenez, business development lead at PrecisionHawk, said UAVs are vital for allowing farmers to better manage inputs on their farms.

“UAV technology is very new, but it actually allows farmers to be able to monitor things almost on an instant,” Jimenez said. “It allows people to optimize inputs, react quickly to threats and be able to save time crop scouting. It allows you to monitor your potential yield throughout the season.”

Through UAV technology, farmers will be able to layer different information from high resolution imaging visual imaging and multispectral imaging to create one map of their farms that will provide all of the information needed on plant health, plant vigor and potential yield, Jimenez said.

Still, regulation remains the biggest restriction to the use of UAVs in agriculture. Jimenez believes the restrictions will soon loosen.

“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is still trying to figure out how they are going to regulate the use of UAVs,” he said. “Currently, for any commercial entity to be able to use a UAV, the operator must be a licensed pilot. That is the restriction where it stands now. We are working with the FAA to increase that usability. And things potentially could change in the next few years.  Most likely that will change as time comes and the industry puts pressure on the FAA to change their regulations.”