As the world’s population continues to increase, more food will be needed for all the extra mouths to feed. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of untapped available farmland. To produce extra food, crop yields need to increase. [Vignesh Ravichandran] is tackling this with the Farmcorder – a device for detecting crop nutrition levels.
The device centers around using spectroscopy to measure the chlorophyll content of leaves. This information can then be used to make educated decisions on the fertilizer required to maximize plant yield. In the past, this has been achieved with expensive bespoke devices, or, at the other end of the spectrum, simple paper color charts.
[Vignesh]’s project takes this to the next level, integrating a spectroscopy package with a GPS and logging over the GSM mobile network. This would allow farmers to easily take measurements out in the field and log them by location, allowing fertilizer application to be dialed in on a per-location basis. The leaf sensor package is particularly impressive. Relying on a TSL2561 sensor IC, the samples are lit with 650nm and 940nm LEDs. The sensor readings can then be used to calculate the chlorophyll levels in the leaves.
It’s a project that sets out to tackle a serious world problem and uses off-the-shelf parts and some hacker know-how to do so. We hope to see this hardware on farms across the world in the near future!
Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.
According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.
So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?
De-lousing is a trying agricultural process. It becomes a major problem in pens which contain the hundreds of thousands of salmon farmed by Norwegians — the world’s largest salmon exporter — an environment which allows the parasite to flourish. To tackle the problem, the Stingray, developed by [Stingray Marine Solutions], is an autonomous drone capable of destroying the lice with a laser in the order of tens of thousands per day.
Introduced in Norway back in 2014 — and some areas in Scotland in 2016 — the Stingray floats in the salmon pen, alert and waiting. If the lice-recognition software (never thought you’d hear that term, huh?) detects a parasite for more than two frames in the video feed, it immediately annihilates it with a 530 nanometre-wide, 100 millisecond laser pulse from up to two metres away. Don’t worry — the salmon’s scales are reflective enough to leave it unharmed, while the pest is fried to a crisp. In action, it’s reminiscent of a point-defense laser on a spaceship.
If you wanted to invoke American farming with colour, which colours would you pick? The chances are they would be the familiar green and yellow of a John Deere tractor. It’s a name that has been synonymous with US agriculture since the 1830s, when the blacksmith whose name appears on the tractors produced his first steel plough blade. The words “American icon” are thrown around for many things, but in the case of John Deere there are few modern brands with as much history to back up their claim to it.
A trip across the prairies then is to drive past Deere products in use from most of the last century. They will still supply parts for machines they made before WW2, and farmers will remain loyal to the brand throughout their lives.
Well… That used to be the case. In recent years a new Deere has had all its parts locked down by DRM, such that all maintenance tasks on the tractors must be performed by Deere mechanics with the appropriate software. If your tractor breaks in the field you can fit a new part as you always have done, but if it’s a Deere it then won’t run until a Deere mechanic has had a look at it. As a result, Motherboard reports that American farmers are resorting to Ukrainian-sourced firmware updaters to hack their machines and allow them to continue working. An icon of American farming finds itself tarnished in its heartland.
We’ve reported on the Deere DRM issue before, it seems that the newest development is a licence agreement from last October that prohibits all unauthorised repair work on the machines as well as insulating the manufacturer from legal action due to “crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software”. This has sent the farmers running to illicit corners of the internet to spend their dollars on their own Deere electronic updating kits rather than on call-out fees for a Deere mechanic. Farmers have had centuries of being resourceful, this is simply the twenty-first century version of the hacks they might have performed decades ago with baler twine and old fertiliser sacks.
You might ask what the hack is here, as in reality they’re just buying a product online, and using it. But this is merely the latest act in a battle in one industry that could have ramifications for us all. Farmers are used to the model in which when they buy a machine they own it, and the Deere DRM is reshaping that relationship to one in which their ownership is on the manufacturer’s terms. How this plays out over the coming years, and how it affects Deere’s bottom line as farmers seek tractors they can still repair, will affect how other manufacturers of products non-farmers use consider DRM for their own business models.
Outside the window where this is being written is a Deere from the 1980s. It’s a reliable and very well-screwed-together tractor, though given the subject of this piece it may be our last green and yellow machine. Its dented badge makes a good metaphor for the way at least for us the brand has been devalued.
When a device that calls itself a personal food computer lands in your timeline, what image springs to mind? A cloud-connected diet aid perhaps, advertised on TV infomercials by improbably fit-looking Californian ladies crediting all their health to a palm-sized unit that can be yours for only 199 dollars. Fortunately that proved not to be the case, and on further reading our timeline story was revealed to be about a computerized farming device.
The OpenAg Food Computer from the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative bills itself as:
“a controlled-environment agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber”
It takes the form of a tabletop enclosure in which so-called climate recipes to replicate different conditions for plant growth can be tested. It’s probably fair to say that in this most basic form it is more of an educational device than one for full-scale food production, though they are applying the same technologies at a much greater scale. Their so-called “Food servers” are banks of OpenAg environments in freight containers, which definitely could be used to provide viable quantities of produce.
Does everyone watch a load of videos on YouTube that are somewhat on the unadmissibly geeky side? In my case I might not care to admit that I have a lot of videos featuring tractors in my timeline. The mighty Russian Kirovets hauling loads through the impossible terrain of the taiga, tiny overloaded 2WD tractors in India pulling wheelies, and JCB Fastracs tearing around the British Fenland. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.
So my recommendations have something of an agricultural flavor. Like the video below the break, a 1917 silent film promoting the Ford Model B tractor. This one was eye-catching because it was a machine I’d not seen before, a rather unusual three-wheeler design with two driving wheels at the front and a single rear steering wheel.
During the early years of the twentieth century the shape of the modern tractor was beginning to evolve, this must have been a late attempt at an alternative. Speaking from the viewpoint of someone who has operated a few tractors in her time it does not look the easiest machine to control, that cloud of exhaust smoke surrounding the driver would not be pleasant, and the operating position hanging over the implement coupling at the rear does not look particularly comfortable or safe.
The film has a charming period feel, and tells the tale of a farmer’s son who tires of the drudgery of manual farm labor, and leaves for the city. He finds a job at the tractor factory and eventually becomes a tractor salesman, along the way meeting and marrying the daughter of a satisfied customer. He returns home with his bride, and a shiny new tractor to release his father from ceaseless labor. Along the way we gain a fascinating look at agriculture on the brink of mass mechanization, as well as the inside of a tractor factory of the time with an assembly sequence in which they appear to use no fasteners.
All of this is very interesting, but the real nugget in the story lies with its manufacturer. This is a Ford Model B tractor. But it’s not a Ford Model B. Confused? So, it seems were the customers. The Ford we all know is the Michigan-based motor company of Henry Ford, who were already very much a big name in 1917. This Ford however comes from the Ford Tractor Co, of South Dakota, an enterprise set up by a shady businessman to cash in on the Ford brand, manufacturing an already outdated and inferior machine backed up by dubious claims of its capabilities.
On the staff was an engineer called Ford who lent his name to the company, but he bore no relation to Henry Ford. The company didn’t last long, collapsing soon after the date of this film, and very few of its products survived. It did have one legacy though, the awful quality of one of its tractors is reputed to have been the impetus behind the founding of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, the place where if you sell a tractor in the USA, you’ll have to have it tested to ensure it performs as it should. In their museum they house one of the few surviving Ford Model B tractors.
Meanwhile the Ford in Michigan produced their own very successful line of tractors, and their Fordson Model F from the same year is a visible ancestor of today’s machines. But as the video below shows, there’s nothing new about a fake.
Australian roboticists from the Queensland University of Technology have developed a prototype agricultural robot that uses machine vision to identify both weed and crop plants before either uprooting or poisoning the weeds or applying fertiliser to the crop.
The machine is a wide platform designed to straddle a strip of the field upon which it is working, with electric wheel motors for propulsion. It is solar-powered, and it is envisaged that a farm could have several of them continuously at work.
At a superficial level there is nothing new in the robot, its propulsion, or even the plant husbandry and weeding equipment. The really clever technology lies in the identification and classification of the plants it will encounter. It is on the success or failure of this in real farm environments that the robot’s future will hinge. The university’s next step will be to take it on-farm, and the ABC report linked above has a wonderfully pithy quote from a farmer on the subject. You can see the machine in action in the video below the break.
Farming robots have a significant following among the hardware hacker community, but it is possible that the machine-vision and plant-identifying abilities of this one would be beyond most hackers. However it is still an interesting project to watch, marking as it does a determined attempt to take the robot out of the lab and into real farm settings.