AgriTech – is the future of farming automated?
Innovative agritech research projects increasingly indicate that such scenes are no longer confined to science fiction novels. From the UK to Australia, experiments giant, automated machines sowing real crops are scenes no longer in automated farming are proving that what seemed like a distant future is now possible.
Five years ago, Harper Adams University in Shropshire set up a Hands Free Hectare scheme. The first of its kind worldwide project was designed to try growing, tending and harvesting crops purely by robots. It proved successful, attracting attention worldwide. By 2019, the project had been expanded to create a Hands Free Farm enabling a comprehensive assessment of the practicalities and economics of robot farming to be undertaken.
As Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer, of Harper Adams University indicates, “This is the only place on earth – certainly within the public sector – where you can get information about a whole cycle for comparing results…. particularly with autonomous equipment. Arable crop production using autonomous equipment is both technically and economically feasible.”
Similar projects are appearing elsewhere. In Australia, researchers at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, are working with the Food Agility co-operative to use drones, robot tractors, harvesters, and pickers, while smart sensors note the amount of carbon emissions being released into the air.
The arrival of robotic autonomous agriculture is making the task of farmers much easier. Although far fewer people are now working on the land, and the pool of available labour is constantly reducing, demand for produce is steadily rising. Farmers are increasingly operating acres of farmland on their own. Equipment manufacturers are taking note, and developing equipment to match their needs.
The resultant technology aims to be problem solving, practical and innovative. Israeli company Blue White Robotics seeks to combine all types of farming operations by connecting autonomous systems and retrofitting existing systems with intelligent algorithms via robot tractors. The resultant hardware and software kit can be used in any style of tractor, from a John Deere to a Kubota. Blue White’s Alon Ascher explains that the kit, “knows how to handle the different implements that tractors are using for example spraying, mowing, disking, dusting – all the different tasks that the normal drive would do.”
At John Deere, one of the largest tractor producers, the company’s aim is to use automation to create the best tractor operator possible. Hands-free AutoTrac satellite guidance can be used to steer combine harvesters while tractors can be driven semi-autonomously with built in cameras allowing plant protection products to be applied autonomously to crops. Users are not exposed to pesticides at any point, since the sprayer tank is filled using an autonomous system.
In the long term, John Deere’s future vision of a tractor driver’s cab utilises artificial intelligence to create a new operating concept complete with joystick control, touchscreen display and networking the various machine systems. Instead of being a place to sit in and drive, the cab becomes a ‘command centre for agricultural operations’, integrating ‘real-time weather data, individual pre-settings and job management procedures.’
Ultimately, manufacturers are keen to explore the potential for driverless tractors. Industry experts believe that the technological capability already exists, it is just a matter of time before it becomes total reality. Self-driving machines are already used in other types of agriculture. At Les Jardins de Purnaud, France, the Oz robot works all types of crops hoeing and weeding while the Naio Technologies straddling weeding robot is used in vineyards.
Earlier this year, the UK based Small Robot Company launched Tom, a monitoring robot delivering world first per plant weeding and mapping with sub millimetre resolution. It scans arable crops to detect weeds, then alerts the Dick robot to zap individual weeds with electrical ‘lightening strikes’ using no chemicals. The robots began working in UK fields this autumn. Other pilot applications include SlugBot using hyper-spectral cameras to detect slugs at night before treating them biologically with microdoses of nematodes, Eventually, Tom will also be able to gather data from a variety of sources such as sensors for birdsong and pollinators to assess soil health and biodiversity.
Precision is a crucial factor. At the Cereals Show 2021, Jonathan Gill from Harper Adams demonstrated the first ever use of a V40 drone to undertake accurate seed spreading, followed by the use of a ground-based robot, the Autospray R150, to fertilise the sown seed.
The impact of robot farming is set to be far wider than many observers believe, affecting not just farmers but also machinery producers and the wider environment. Since the Second World War, there has been an increasing focus on creating farms capable of using massive machinery capable of cultivating huge fields. Hedgerows were removed, and fields combined to make larger ones. Now the wheel is turning full circle, as environmental considerations highlighting the role of wildlife on farms together with the need to reduce soil compaction and erosion are resulting in hedgerows and trees being reinstated.
Robot technology has become financially possible for smaller farmers, enabling arable farming to be combined with livestock, value added activities or off farm employment to provide sufficient income for family farms, and operate competitively. The costs are much lower than investing in conventional machinery. In the States, Carbon Robotics has stated that producers using their weeding technology would be able to recover investment costs within five growing seasons.
Not to be overlooked are the environmental implications. Kit Franklin, Harper Adams points out, “Tractors are becoming smaller, returning to their 1950’s/1960’s size. The new generation of robot cultivators, weeders and sprayers are much smaller and lighter. Smaller machines do not physically compact the ground as much.”
The arrival of robotics within all branches of farming also enables extremely accurate data to be recorded, reducing the amount of herbicides that need to be applied while monitoring environmental factors determining the rate of climate change. Sam Watson Jones, president and co-founder, Small Robot Company says “Robotics can already take billions of accurate measurements in each field. This will transform the way that farms are able to sequester and cycle carbon, and measure that accurately. The opportunity for agriculture to support the transition towards Net Zero is enormous.”
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