You reap what you sow


I often open talks to the public with “computing under pins everything we do”. A touch melodramatic but hey when you focus on a typical day, most of us interact with computers. Some times directly such as phones, laptops and tablets. Sometime less directly: automatic doors, clever kitchen appliances. Ithink there are even toothbrushes which claim to be digital. It seems there is no end to what can be digitised. As such you would appreciate its not often I’m surprised when technology is being used in a novel situation. When we were staying with my big sister up in Aberdeen and went out to visit the farm one of her friends owns a large farm I was really surprised with the tech in use and the connectedness of it all.

After meeting the cows who had been brought in for the winter and were rather jumpy in a large shed we went into the grain barn to see the tractor. These are impressive pieces of kit. A massive gleaming John Deer, with a bewildering array of mechanical linkages sticking out the back. It wasn’t the well designed cock-pit which placed the array of features at your fingertips that caught my attention. It was the GPS dome on the front. It looked similar to the GPS you see on small boats and I could tell from the pulsing blue light that this was a fairly modern addition. I assumed that this would be used to improve the accuracy when sowing seed, spraying etc and indeed this is one role. Like any business person  farmers will not invest in kit if there isn’t a return to be made, and the efficiencies of using this GPS system stack up. It reduces operator fatigue (you can watch Top Gear and let the tractor do the work), and makes significant reductions in how much overlap there is when spraying and sowing seed. This was cool to see but not really surprising, sat nav has been leading the technogullible into canals for quite some time and comes as standard on even low end smart phones.

The interesting bit was when the term “soil mapping” was mentioned and we went to have a look at the Combine. Another staggeringly big (close up) piece of kit with the now familiar pulsing blue dome. But this is where it got interesting. The combine is instrumented to automatically record characteristics of the crop it is harvesting: weight of head, height of stock etc which is good data to have. This along with its geotag is used to build a soil map of the fertility of the field and the crop yield to the square foot. Which is pretty cool on its own, but this is then fed back to the tractor the following year so fertiliser can be used proportionately. I don’t know if the model factors in the weather throughout the growing period and other data but I was really impressed to see such a refined seamless service in operation.

Its a great example of identifying legitimate gains to be had by implementing some tech and also a design and dev cycle that has clearly understood the way the farmers operate in its entirety. As aposed to focusing on a temporally small snap shot it considers the multiple years and long game that farming is. This made me think about the service model in operation. The different machines have tech on board that talks to each other, presumably using GSM. If this is a subscription service then its likely there is a big database full of lots of this data. A national or global picture of crop yield at this granularity would be incredibly interesting to create and no doubt of value. which be an untapped resource and by product of the current business model in place.

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