Artificial Intelligence is Transforming Farming—Now

Automated machinery and drones impact everything from equipment ownership to weed control. ( Lindsey Benne )

The age of artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture is in motion. Automated planting and harvesting, unmanned vehicles for cultivation and soil sampling, robotic drone activity and more — AI technology has jumped from theory to design to farmland. In short, farming’s driverless machines of tomorrow are at work in the rows today with the implementation of AI meaning a significant shift on many operations in the not-so-distant future.

Equipment Ownership Will Change

Automation will make a direct impact on machinery ownership, says John Fulton, digital ag specialist with Ohio State University. “I don’t see farmers owning as much equipment. They’ll probably be leasing it or hiring custom work,” he says.

To keep pace with technology, equipment updates will be a consistent necessity, Fulton projects. “As automation and AI mature, it’ll be like having a cellphone and every few years you’ll want to upgrade because the machinery capabilities will constantly improve. Again, at some point there is going to be a switch to lease or hire out the services.”

Eyes Using Cameras

Fulton currently sees significant progress in drone technology for specialty crops, which will quickly jump to row crops. “Drones can do so much when scouting, and now we’re seeing drone sprayers capable of improving coverage in field areas with high weed pressure while completing crop protection applications efficiently,” he says. ”But there’s more beyond drones, such as robotic cultivators and weeders.”

In the next five years, drone sprayers will spot-spray row crops, perform stand counts, identify weeds and provide crop health estimates, he adds.

Five Years or Less

Kevin Monk, ag tech consultant and owner of The Monk Approach, echoes Fulton’s position on the prospective shift in automated machinery ownership. “The mentality of growers changes to become more about the machine just getting the job done. Once this mindset changes, the grower is not concerned about owning the machine as much as just making sure they have availability of the machines on their farm when they need them, especially since paying for usage of a machine can be at a lower cost and not tie up capital on machines only used for a short window.”

How quickly does Monk see automation taking hold in mainstream agriculture? Adios to the intro and pay attention in the next five years, he says: “We’re already past the introduction phase, and we’re rapidly going to see increased adoption. This spring, we saw companies offering planting as a service using autonomous machines, offering kits for grain carts, others focused on spraying and some working on tillage.” 

The Grand Farm

In North Dakota, the Grand Farm aims to become the world’s first fully autonomous agriculture operation by 2025 — and serve as a lab for entrepreneurs and ag tech companies.

Grand Farm program manager William Aderholdt believes automation enhancement will put a shoulder to the door of farmer access and open an era conducive to farms of all sizes, buoyed by technological innovation.

Automation and smaller vehicles, he proposes, will lower the entry barrier across the agriculture industry — and essentially revive small farms. “The cost of entry is going to drop; you won’t have to purchase an expensive combine. You’ll be able to run a small combine, about the size of a car, across your operation 24 hours a day with no driver costs.”

Labor availability and expense remains an issue in agriculture, but automation will be a significant remedy, Aderholdt adds. “For example, we’re going to see operations tended entirely by individual and single-family teams assisted by smaller machines. This is coming fast, and the effect will be positively felt in rural communities as a way to build local economies and drive people back into these places.”

Interested in Learning More?

John Fulton will share more about what’s coming in the next generation of automated solutions at Farm Journal AgTech Expo. Register today at