To catch a glimpse of new technology that could help farmers get more from plants in the soil, look to the sky.
Aerial drones might be more commonly associated with military applications today. But the precision an unmanned aerial vehicle shows in a military strike also has applications in farming. A drone can identify a target in the field—a pest, a disease, or a nutrient problem, says Rick DeRose, global expert, technology acquisition for Syngenta Biotechnology. Based on information from that aerial scan, a farmer can determine how to respond. That response will be delivered by a drone. DeRose calls it “precision agriculture.”
“We are doing space stuff in agriculture,” DeRose says. “It is the way of the future.”
The future of agriculture was the central theme of the North Carolina Agriculture and Biotechnology Summit last week, a conference that drew agribusiness companies, scientists, and farmers to the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. At issue is the pressure on industry to produce more food amid warnings that food production must double by 2050 in order to meet demands of a global population expected to reach 9 billion people that year. Emerging technologies that give farmers ways to make precise, targeted responses to crop stresses are expected to figure prominently in the efforts to make farming more productive and efficient.
Biotechnology is already part of the agriculture industry’s efforts to improve crop yields. Genetic modification has led to crops varieties that better tolerate drought, pests, and herbicides. Precision BioSciences has developed gene editing technology to modify genes in mammalian or plant cells. Among the Durham, NC company’s partners is Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), which has used Precision’s technology to insert genes into the corn genome.
Bioagricultural companies are also ramping up their research efforts in agricultural microbials, tiny organisms naturally found in the soil that can have beneficial effects on plants. Some plants and microbes have a mutually beneficial relationship. Researchers are trying to identify these relationships, which could perhaps help a plant resist disease or hold up better during drought. A commercially available agricultural microbial would offer a specific application targeting a particular plant.
While there are some agricultural microbials already commercially available, Adam Monroe, president of the Americas for Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM), says considering that a single gram of soil contains more than 30,000 species of microorganisms, the potential of ag microbials has barely been scratched. Denmark-based Novozymes, which has its North American headquarters in Franklinton, NC, has partnered with Monsanto (NYSE: MON) to research, develop, and commercialize new agricultural microbials.
The research in microbials from Novozymes and Syngenta is still years from reaching farmers; more study is needed and regulatory approvals will be required as well. The technology likely to reach farms in the near future is the aerial drone.
The Federal Aviation Administration currently limits drone use to research purposes. The UAV industry has been pushing for the FAA to integrate UAVs into the aviation system. In a report released last year, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says drones will have a $13.6 billion economic impact in the first three years; in North Carolina, that economic impact would be $153 million.
Some investors are betting on the growth potential of drones in agriculture, among other uses. Raleigh, NC startup PrecisionHawk in September closed a $10 million Series B round led by Millennium Technology Value Partners. That round followed a $25 million Series B round raised by San Francisco, CA startup Airware, which is developing a hardware and software system that will allow other companies to build custom drones.
While drone companies await a loosening of restrictions on drone use, researchers are already demonstrating the technology’s potential in agriculture. Ron Heiniger, a professor and cropping systems specialist in North Carolina State University’s Department of Crop Science, said at the AgBio Summit that for the first time this year, researchers used tiny helicopters to apply chemicals to a crop in just the right location. Researchers determined the right place to apply chemicals by monitoring crops over time, then analyzing crop data using software tools developed by the university.
Precise application of chemicals and fertilizers means that only the needed amount is applied to a plant, which exposes the environment to less of a chemical. Precise application also leaves no wasted chemical, which saves money. The days of using a large, lumbering tractor to tend to crops could become a thing of the past, Heiniger says.
“We’ve got to be more precise, to find the right way to apply nutrients to the right place, the right time, even the right plant,” he says.
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