photo credit: Paul W. Jackson, Farm News Media
Michigan produces more than 900 million pounds of apples per year so it is no wonder apples are known as one of Michigan's largest and most valuable fruit crops. But what most people don’t know is that these large quantities of locally grown “Pure Michigan” apples are possible due to advances in drone technology and increased broadband connectivity on our orchards and farms.
As a fourth-generation farmer, I know the value that technology and increased broadband connectivity has had on my apple and grain farm. As we move further into the 21st century, it has become increasingly important that my farm business is consistently and reliably connected. For that reason, it is vital that our policymakers and regulators are aware of how much of an impact their decisions have on people like me. Recently, committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are considering legislation on drone technology. In addition, President Trump announced that his soon-to- be-released Infrastructure Plan would include broadband. All of these discussions will have lasting impacts beyond Washington and will directly affect my business.
With more than 14 varieties of apples and 2000 acres of row-crops on my farm near Sparta, Michigan, I rely on precision agriculture technologies, the utilization of unmanned aircraft systems, and a reliable and stable broadband connection. Everything we do on our farm now is digitally connected, from our irrigation system to our controlled atmospheric systems, which allows us to store our apples year round.
Before these advances in technology, it was impossible for me to be in multiple places at once. Now, I can work remotely with my agronomist who is 80 miles away to share soil test recommendations. As long as I have a connected device and a reliable network signal, I can log in to my precision agriculture software and make a change to a prescription map or planting grade in my grain fields.
Perhaps the most vital feature of this connectivity is that I can make changes instantaneously. I can remotely analyze how much fuel my equipment is burning and tell my employee to either slow down or speed up the tractor. I can make changes to a planting pattern while already in the field if I determine something else might be a better option. But all of the data I am using requires connectivity—connectivity that is unfettered and uninterrupted. As an example, last week I used a program called "Drone Deploy" to map a field of about 40 acres. With my current broadband connection, it took nearly six hours to upload all the data to the cloud, and an additional hour to download it back in a usable format. We're not talking about small amounts of data here—one 40 acre field will generate about 2.5 gigabytes of data.
And that's only one flight, over one 40 acre field.
The growth of drone utilization has optimized efficiency for my farm. Use of drones can deliver time series animations, so that farmers can know when a crop is fully developed or where inefficiencies may occur. Analysis of the nutrition levels of soil and fields has helped in developing efficient seed patterns, produced 3-D maps and has helped understand certain crop cycles.
For my grain crops, the main benefits of unmanned aircraft systems are the ability to scout and see nutrient inefficiencies and crop stress indicators. Drones have also made crop spraying five times faster and more efficient by using distance measuring equipment, to allow drones to compare and contrast topography and geography in order to provide proper irrigation.
The onset of faster and more reliable 5G networks will bring lower latency to much of my apple and grain production. While not a huge impediment to some tasks on the farm, it is a must for others that are critical. Our storage control systems for our fruit and our irrigation systems have 3-5 second latency, which is not the end of the world for those technologies, but as we continue to move our operation forward, the equipment is going to need to be more precise.
As the technology of the farming equipment becomes more exact, the ability to avoid a latency delay will be very valuable. For example, think of a camera system that shows us when our grain trucks are full. If there is a five second delay, we will over-fill the truck.
Connected technology has brought our agricultural industry to a new phase and we can only wonder what the future of broadband connectivity and other innovation holds for Michigan’s future apple production. We must do all we can to produce greater yields for less and provide quality food products for the future generations.