Social media

The social media has gathered steam in agriculture. Groups like the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance are connecting farmers with the public and supporting conversations about food production through social media. Ag companies utilize Twitter and Facebook to push the news about their latest products to the public instantly. And individual farmers are able to share their stories in quick updates through social media with the farming community. -Kathy Huting

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A new movement growing among ag companies and farm operators is sustainability. This term refers to all the good things about agriculture, like producing more food from less land with low environmental impact and at an economical cost. Sound difficult? Yes, but consumers are demanding it. They don’t want wasteful, harmful food production. And big companies like WalMart use sustainability as part of its successful business strategy. In the future, farm operators will need to assess the sustainability of their farm practices, with hopes that it will lead to a financial payoff. -Karen McMahon

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Supervised or semi autonomous vehicles

Although not truly robotic, since they don’t replace the need for an operator, these systems allow the navigation system on a primary vehicle to temporarily take over steering and speed-control functions from a second vehicle’s operator. The goal is to improve efficiency and safety of critical field operations. Semi-autonomous systems from John Deere (Machine Sync) and Trimble were commercially available in 2012. Both systems allow combines to take control of tractors pulling grain carts to simplify on-the-go grain transfer. When the cart is filled, the tractor operator retakes control. A supervised system introduced by Fendt in Europe, which allows a lead tractor to control a driverless tractor following behind, hints at future possibilities. -David Hest

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Telematic systems use cellular modems to monitor machine performance and keep track of equipment in the field in real time. Increasingly, telematics systems are being offered as standard equipment on tractors, combines and sprayers as manufacturers look for ways to help customers boost efficiency and improve customer service and reduce warranty costs. Typically, telematics systems allow operators to monitor equipment locations in real time, as well as access a history of previous locations. They also record machine performance data and alert owners and/or dealers when problems occur. -David Hest

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Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or Drones

Commonly known as drones, UAVs could become a low-cost precision ag scouting tool in the not-too-distant future. As electronics and communications device prices have fallen, companies catering to hobbyists have begun selling small fixed-wing and helicopter drones for as little as $500. These UAVs, which can be programmed to follow designated flight paths, are legal to operate as long as visual contact is maintained and altitude limits are followed. Already, a UAV manufacturer, DIY Drones (diydrones.com), has promised to introduce a helicopter with optics needed for crop scouting by the end of 2013. It is expected to have a price tag of under $1,000. Other UAVs, like the WineHawk platform (winehawklabs.com), though priced higher, produce precise and consistent results. These systems, that use hands-off intelligence, take away the manual process that can degrade data. Currently, commercial use in the U.S. is prohibited. However, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules are expected to change in 2015 as the agency fulfills direction from Congress to begin allowing commercial use. - David Hest