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Farming 2020: sensors, big data and robotics technology will transform the world’s oldest industry


rice field.jpg

Farmers are facing a changing world. The global population is increasing, and we all need food at reasonable prices. There is pressure on water supplies. There is concern over over-use of pesticides, fungicides, and antibiotics in animal feed. The world’s climate is changing, with extremes in weather becoming more common. 


When we think of industries in which the application of technology has made an impact, farming is probably not the first that springs to mind. And yet farming has historically embraced mechanization. In 1930, one person could harvest eleven bushels of wheat a day. Today, that same person can harvest more than 90 bushels per day. I believe that within the next 30 years will see the continued application of technology in farming, but this time in the form of sensors, big data analysis, robots, and drones.



The precision farm

The use of computing-based technology will enable farmers to practice “precision farming.” Precision farming is the precise application of seed, fertilizer, fungicide, and pesticide to only those plants that need it. This can massively reduce farming material costs, and improve yields. And it may allay the concerns of those who believe that too many chemicals are being applied to our crops.


Sensors and/or ultra-high resolution photographs will be used to precisely measure plant hydration, the need for fertilizer, and the presence of diseases and funguses. The sensors might be positioned in the plants themselves, housed in commercial drones , or fitted to robots that continually travel around the crops, measuring as they go. (You can read how this drone technology is already being used here.)



 [Image : Parrot Drones]


Robots will then be used for planting; for precision application of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides; and for the picking of crops. (Here is an example of how robots are already used to harvest strawberries.)


 strawberry picker (AFP-JIJI).jpg

 [Image : AFP-JIJI)


Farming in cities, using hydroponics, will become increasingly popular. Such farms will use sensors to measure:

  • Water’s ph balance and salinity
  • Humidity and CO2 levels
  • Temperature
  • Growing spectrum light intensity

Not only will close, sensor-based monitoring allow hydroponic farmers to grow very high quality plants for which they can charge a premium, but analysis will allow them to understand very precisely what growing conditions produce the best plants. (For a super video on MIT's research into City Farms, please go here.)


MITCityFarm ( 

[Image :]



Robotics and sensors will help in the raising of livestock

In Australia, where cattle ranches raise animals in the millions, helicopters, and not horses, are used to round up the herds. But this comes at a cost. Each year, at least ten helicopter-based herders crash. Swansea University in the UK recently unlocked the mystery of the algorithm used by sheepdogs to round up their charges by using GPS trackers on the sheep and dogs. Maybe drones and robots could one day replace helicopters, horses and sheepdogs in cattle herding.



 [Image : Courtesy : A.J. Morton]


Use of sensors to monitor the detailed health of humans is a very hot topic right now. As this technology advances, it could be used to monitor the health of cattle, thus allowing farmers to only apply antibiotics and other drugs when required. This will both save costs and allay the fears that the public has regarding the overuse of antibiotics. We may even go one stage further, using genetic analysis to tailor health regimes to individual animals, especially expensive ones like a prize bull or race horse.


Robots and drones will also be used to manage the security of large farms against people stealing livestock and crops. And drones are already be developed that will give early alert of fires on remote farmland.



Sensors and big data to ensure security of the supply chain

Big data and sensors are starting to see use in fighting counterfeiting of all kinds of goods. Last year, it was revealed that a number of “beef products” sold in Europe in fact contained horse meat. (For more detail on how HP Professional Services is using big data to fight counterfeiting, please see this blog post)


There have also been questions raised over the provability of organic food labeling. The same sensor and data analysis technology used to fight counterfeiting could be used to prove food sources. 


For example, sensors on prime beef would give a history of its journey and temperature through that journey. Shoppers could then be assured that their food had not had its “cold chain” violated. The same sensor information could be used to track affected food in, say, an e-coli outbreak.


steak (Picture-LondonBroil).png

 [Image :]



Connecting to the future

I believe that in the next 30 years, the pressure on farmers to produce more food while being more efficient in their use of resources will lead to the use of sensors, data analysis, and robotics. Just like we are seeing with the Internet of Things in cars and homes, the first step on this path is the proposal of a standard to which all computing devices can connect. This is already happening with the Open Agriculture Data Alliance.


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Want more?

For more information on Enterprise 2020, please go to and/or look at my Enterprise 2020 page.


For more information on HP Big Data, please go to and/or look at my Big Data page.


Mike Shaw
Director Strategic Marketing

linkedin.gifMike Shaw

About the Author


Mike has been with HPE for 30 years. Half of that time was in research and development, mainly as an architect. The other 15 years has been spent in product management, product marketing, and now, strategic marketing. .


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