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“And if we’re using less fertilizer or less herbicide, then less is getting into our surface and groundwater,” Mulla said.
Many of the systems have become standard as farmers upgrade their equipment. One survey suggested that 70 percent of the corn and soybean farmers in the Upper Midwest now use some type of automatic steering.
Precision farming has also created hundreds of companies that make and sell agricultural software, Peterson said, and train the service providers, local coops and farmers to use it.
“Not long ago you would advise a farmer using hand-drawn instructions,” he said. “Now we implement suggestions with a thumb drive, and ultimately it’ll be wireless. It’s how we do agronomy now.”
Entrepreneurs and universities are experimenting with the next wave of futuristic farm tools: robots to tend plants and drones to check for crop stress or insects.
Rowbot Systems, a Minneapolis start-up company, showed off a prototype robot in several fields last fall that could motor between corn rows to add nitrogen fertilizer in midsummer when corn plants need it the most and heavy machinery isn’t an option.
“There’s lots of opportunities during the season when the needs of plants are changing and we can respond to those needs in a very tailored way,” said Rowbot CEO Kent Cavender-Bares.
The robots, 20-inch wide machines, could also be programmed to plant cover crops or sense where to target herbicides and insecticides, he said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, also have a future in farming, said Ian MacRae, associate professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, Crookston.
Remote sensing from satellites and aircraft allows farmers to see areas of stressed plants, he said, but it’s not always clear whether the poor growth is the result of drought, disease or insects.
Drones that can fly over a field at 100 feet can provide faster and better images of crops that are not doing well, he said, without the need to hire a pilot or wait for clouds to clear. Federal officials have not yet released regulations for commercial use of drones, he said, but the U has permits to use a 3-foot electric octocopter at certain research plots.
One of the mini-helicopter’s missions is to carry regular and near-infrared cameras to photograph stressed crops, MacRae said, and develop “spectral signatures” of their wavelengths to identify particular insects, such as soybean aphids. Data like that could allow farmers to pinpoint and treat insect hot spots before a whole field is infested, he said.
A few more years of research is needed for that technology, MacRae said, and federal rules need to be established.
“Once we get to that point, it’s going to take off, it really is,” he said.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388