“Look, Mom, no hands.”
In the case of wearable computers, such as Google Glass, this is perhaps more aptly phrased, “Look, Mom, both hands” —one of the reasons why three technology experts believe that wearable computers could make steep inroads into several facets of farming.
Farmers place a high premium on mobility — namely, the ability to communicate and to upload and download digital information on their mobile devices while their hands are free to conduct all manner of essential business on the farm, whether it’s crop scouting, repairing an irrigation system or calibrating a sprayer.
“I could be wrong, but my view is that farmers have always been mobile and that they’ve always wanted to work with their hands,” says Bruce Rasa, a farm technology consultant and a former Missouri 4-H state president who grew up on a farm. Rasa is also a Google Glass Explorer, one of 8 thousand people in the world commissioned by Google to test the device and to gain a better understanding of how people will use it. He has already shared Google Glass with 400 people from 20 different countries.
Rasa describes Google Glass as a “smartphone for your face that enables hand-free use.” And it’s precisely this characteristic that may enable farmers finally to have their proverbial cake and eat it too, namely to work with their hands while deriving the full benefits of mobile technology, he says.
Aiding Data Management
But he and two other farm technology experts contend that mobility is only one of many factors that ultimately may draw farmers to wearable computers. For Dr. John Fulton, a precision farming expert, it’s the role wearable computers will play in helping producers better manage the growing volumes of farm data.
Visual, textual and other data uploaded on the go via Google Glass and other wearable devices will not only be available for future reference but can also be shared on a real-time basis better enabling farmers to make spot decisions in the field.
(Right: E.V. Smith Research Center Director Greg Pate scouting cotton for the first time in history using Google Glass.)
Fulton, an Auburn University associate professor of Biosystems Engineering who heads the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s crops team, offers a medical analogy to illustrate this technology ultimately could benefit farmers.
“Let’s imagine I’m dealing with a rash on my arm,” he says. “I take a picture and send it to a physician, who advises me to quarantine myself for 10 days because I’m suffering from the early stages of chicken pox.”
“Think about this: I conceivably could secure this diagnosis in a matter of minutes or even seconds and without the time spent making an appointment, driving to the doctor’s office and waiting to be received.”
The same approach could be employed with similar levels of efficiency for insect, weed and disease issues on the farm. Infield observations of growers or crop scouts using Google Glass or similar wearable computers could be made available in real time to Extension entomologists, weed scientists or plant pathologists for quick evaluation and diagnosis — or, they could be uploaded to a cloud for future reference.
“I can use one of these devices to capture infield information that can be stamped by time, date and GPS coordinates and that also can be automatically archived,” he says.
Screen Capture with the Blink of an Eye
“With the blink of an eye or a tap [of the Google Glass] I’ve made a screen capture of an item that could be of critical importance later in the crop season.”
“For that matter, I could share this information with a crop consultant or input supplier even as I’m observing it in the field.”
Useful Tool in Crop Consulting
Small wonder why Greg Pate, agronomist and director of Auburn University’s E.V. Smith Research Center near Montgomery, predicts that wearable computers could prove useful in many facets of farming, particularly crop consulting.
“We have lots of farmers who receive data compiled by a scout and question it or dismiss it as someone’s opinion,” Pate says. “Now, with Google Glass, all a consultant has to do is pull up the data that was compiled automatically and say, ‘Here it is.’”
It is this feature — uploading data into a cloud from which it can conveniently be retrieved for future reference — that appeals to Pate, who, as director, is ultimately responsible for every facet of the farming operation at E.V. Smith. An early adopter of precision farming, he is always searching for labor- and cost-saving technology in an era of spiking farm costs and lean budgets.
As a practice, Pate spends plenty of time with his laptop familiarizing himself with what variety was planted in what field, though his memory occasionally fails when he’s standing in the middle of a field.
“We plant so many varieties, and when I’m in a particular field, I need to know instantly what variety I’m standing in versus what was planted 20 feet away, because these are going to be managed differently.”
“I like the thought of being able to scan each bag of seed before it goes into an individual planter — not only to scan it but also to geo-reference it so I know where everything is planted,” he says.
“With Google Glass or some other wearable device, you have the potential of knowing this instantaneously.”
Securing Farm-to-Table Traceability
The instantaneous recordkeeping afforded by wearable computers also would offer the potential to producers of compiling a crop-year record never before conceived, one that will help farmers demonstrate to consumers that the crops were raised not only according to the safest production standards but also in an environmentally sustainable manner.
“A safe and environmentally sustainable food supply is what the consumer public increasingly demands,” Fulton says. “The challenge has been finding ways to track the production process in the most accurate and cost-effective way possible.
“Google Glass and other wearable devices may turn out to be the solution we’ve been searching for.”