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Wearables and your time, efficiency on the farm

Google Glass isn't even available to U.S. consumers, and farmers are already developing ways they'll be able to use the device and other wearable computers like it.

The initial reaction from farmers to the new device – the most prominent and visible early entry into the market for wearable computers – focused on it freeing up the user's hands, making it possible to document and utilize visual data while doing things like working on a piece of machinery or driving a tractor or combine in the field. In other words, a hands-free smartphone.

Now, a few months later, farmers' plans for the device are evolving into a lot more than that. Now, farmers are already making plans to put them to use in ways that are exclusive to the new classification of digital technology.

"Wow. The possibilities are endless. We do a lot with data, and a part of the importance of being able to utilize data is finding a way to make it a matter of record. This is unbelievable that it can be this easy," says Bode, Iowa's Chris Weydert immediately after trying on a Google Glass for the first time. "We do yield maps and all those things, and that's all become pretty easy. This is seamless. The speed of implementing a decision, making a deal or getting a purchase done . . . my mind's just going nuts with the possibilities of what you can do with this."

Handling ag data

A lot of that lies with the work Weydert does with Ben Rahe. He's Weydert's agronomic information adviser (his data guy) with Premier Crop Systems, a regional agronomy firm based in West Des Moines, Iowa. The seamless, virtually friction-free transfer – and more importantly, utilization – of information opens up the door to new efficiencies that will likely change Rahe's work altogether, he says.

"When it comes to data and information, growers and myself working together, we can bury ourselves right now with just the data coming from the monitors. I don't know if this will be data in all cases. In some cases it will be, but when you're taking pictures or documenting conditions from Google Glass as you're harvesting, is it data or observations? We're going to have to sort that all out," Rahe says. "It'll take a whole other set of intellectual time and R&D from the grower's standpoint and from other service providers to figure out what's important and what's not.

"The ability to record is step one. Step two is if you have the data source and you're unlocking potential you didn't have before, that's value there. Then, capitalizing on that value is what the rest of the industry is going to have to do," he adds.

The simple act of documenting something in the field is one thing, too. What that instant documentation – regardless of its use later on - allows the farmer to do it entirely different, especially at critical times of year like corn harvest. Documenting something in a way that allows the farmer to keep the wheels turning, avoiding downtime and its many costs, can create new efficiencies that haven't existed up until now.

"Say I'm working with a grower and he's got a performance issue in a field. He's going through in his mind 'What did I do wrong?' But, he's got to keep his combine moving because he's got to get to another field," Rahe says. "Well, a sales rep from a company or other agronomist may show up today to examine the field, but it's harvested. If he had Glass, he could play back and share with that expert in whatever field he's talking about even if it's been harvested. I'm relating this to crops and performance. It could be marketing, equipment repair . . . if you can, in real-time, send that back to the expert you need in that field, that's where the payback's going to be."

Maximizing input efficiencies

Farm machinery - even the highest-tech combine or tractor - is only costing you money when it's sitting in the farm shop or at the field's edge. Right now, for most agronomic problems or mechanical issues you could run into in the field, you'll likely have to stop, make a phone call, hop in the pickup, and take care of the hangup . . . all things that keep your iron parked.

Now, enter a wearable device like Google Glass. If you notice an agronomic issue in even a small spot in a field from the combine cab during harvest, you can record it as you roll through the field, then apply what you see and what solutions you apply later on without so much as slowing down.

"There are just random things that occur in the field and a lot of times we have the time to stop the combine, see why the corn went down, check for bugs, disease pressure, etc.," Weydert says. "Even if we're not combining, just scouting fields . . . You can instantly record that and come back later and diagnose it. I could go back, reference yield maps from the last two or three years, and say 'Oh, there's been a yield issue here in this area, and now we've identified this in a more concrete manner and can get to the bottom of it.'"

In some instances, the cost of not being able to run in the field -- a cost that could be eliminated by some of the capabilities of a wearable device like Glass -- can be even greater than simple downtime, especially in the most critical times of the crop growing season.

"Say I'm looking at my planter, and I see that row 22 is having a problem. Maybe that row's reading low. I may not stop because I've got rain pushing me," Rahe says. "But, later I can go back and look at row 22 and use Google Glass to do my crop scouting. So, I go back to row 22 and see that its singulation wasn't very good. So, I'll know to fix that part of the planter for the next planting season."

Weydert says the possibilities for a wearable device extend into areas that represent major new efficiencies and time savings for him, his employees, and other experts, like Rahe, with whom he works on a regular basis.

"I will tell you there are a a lot of times I'll call Ben for stuff that I should really get myself. I'll call him and see if he'll email me yields from this field to the insurance company or something like that," he says. "If we do custom work for people, I'll ask them to generate a yield map just as an invoicing type of thing, to send this to somebody to find out how much grain came off the field, how much we combined, and I don't have to deal with it. In that way, I'm relying on them, whereas with this, we finished combining, I send it to him, boom, it's done."

Next steps

A step further lies in not just a device like Google Glass, but the software infrastructure behind it. Take the Google system, for example. Google has its Google+ networking system in which users can create "circles" comprising colleagues, friends, family, or other user-defined groups, then share information with those connections completely at the user's discretion.

So, what if you have a Google+ circle comprising you, your seed dealer, your agronomist, your co-op manager, your grain merchandiser, and your hired hands?

"I think it makes it easier as we try to manage more and grow. There are so many things we have to keep track of. A lot of times, I just call Ben. He manages our data. Here's a way he doesn't even have to request it if you talk about a Google circle. He knows where we're combining right now, so if he wants to run by if he's in the area, he can," Weydert says. "It's amazing."

But there remain issues with transparency and security. Though the latter remains a matter of personal comfort with Google+ and other cloud-based networking systems, the former is a good thing in Weydert's eyes.

"One of the problems with society is nothing's ever anybody's fault," he says. "Some of this transparency is going to make it easier to hold people accountable for what's going on, whether good or bad."

Further down the road, the potential of wearables like Google Glass alone pales in comparison to when they can be put to work alongside other new tech tools approaching widespread availability. Take unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), for example: Though many see them as having a major role in crop production down the road, that role could vastly expand when they're used in concert with a wearable.

"Right now, it's somewhat time-prohibitive to drive every acre of every field, and as farmers grow and get bigger, they need information and feedback just as fast as they can get it. With a drone or UAV, you'll be able to scout 160 acres in 45 minutes, send that drone over, have it do its job completely on autopilot and for those 45 minutes while you can be watching the markets, managing, whatever you need to do," Rahe says. "You can come back, pick it up and once they get the software down where they can process the images more rapidly, you'll have not necessarily real-time results, but you'll be able to say more quickly, 'Hey, we'll be able to see some sort of issue and we need to address it.' Do we harvest that first and pay the extra drying cost, or do we wait a couple weeks and see what happens?"

In the end, new tools like wearables and UAVs are basically logical steps in the process of advancing digital and interactive technology on the farm. And, for any wearable or UAV detractors who may already be using yield monitors and GPS technology in their equipment, Rahe says they're already doing what they'll have to do once these new classes of technology hit the market.

"Ultimately, as we get more connectivity and broadband on the farm, if each farm has its own wireless network, we can have real-time surveying, potentially. That drone could be kicking it back to Google Glass," he says. "Let's say we have a spring like we've had this year in north-central Iowa, with incredible rainfall amounts. Rather than sending your dad or somebody else out with a pickup to scout the next field, you send your drone out and it relays it back to Google Glass and you can watch. Your tractor's auto-steering the planter as you're planting, and the drone can be scouting the next field for you."

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