Skip to comments.The Farms of the Future Will Be Automated From Seed to Harvest
Posted on 11/10/2017 10:30:33 AM PST by 2ndDivisionVet
Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isnt some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operationfrom seed to harvestmay someday be automated, without the need to ever get ones fingernails dirty.
In fact, its science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture, said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
Its Blackmores university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
This project aimed to prove that theres no technological reason why a field cant be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and weve done that, said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a see-and-spray system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
Its not just farmland thats getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what weve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment, Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year, he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers dont have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligencewhether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithmswill be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. Thats one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on whats called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesnt just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area, said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the leafy greens category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
I could use a roomba lawn weed sprayer....
Farms from the future will not be needed. Food will be made by chemicals formed in 3-D Microwaves.
“Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.”
As if there aren’t huge numbers of people laboring away at creating/building/maintaining those robots, and supporting that high-tech infrastructure - in far better conditions than weather-exposed fields.
Hamburgers will come from printers!
I’ll also need a Mr. Fusion to power the microwave....
Will robots also go out to the mailbox to pick up the subsidy checks for not growing crops?
But, but...how’s John McCain and Jeb Bush going to justify the illegals invasion?
From seed to pot, automatically.
Geez, haven’t we heard *enough* stories about Harvey Weinstein?
It isn’t like there’s a shortage of grains now. The issue isn’t increasing yields, it’s a matter of increasing profitability.
It doesn’t change anything if instead of 100 bushels an acre at $6 a bushel you produce 200 bushels at $3 per, even if the per-unit cost of production also drops in half.
So . . . all that ee-lec-tron-ich-all stuff will be needin’ lots a’ fixin’.
All it’s showing is new systems. That’s all.
Will be implemented steps at a time.
Will require lots of set up, testing, tear it out, start again, sell it, start over etc.
Will require lots of folks to fix stuff when it breaks.
Tornadoes will rip it all apart.
Floods will wash it away.
Fires will burn it up.
Gub-Mints will regulate it and tax it.
Troglodytes will curse it.
ALGOR-ians will worship it.
Most will just keep moving on with necessary progress and improvement.
Babies will be made.
‘Shine will be drank.
Cows will poop.
G-d is happiest when His children are at play.
‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ ;)
That way we all can live in projects like Obama wanted.
Now we learn the truth.
Robots - willing to do the jobs Americans won’t do.
Well, after a few months working in a corporate "cube" you'll wish you were one of the robots back in the weather-exposed fields.
I’ve spent 25 years in corporate cubes.
Don’t think I’d trade it for 8-16 hour days in the sun & rain. Would much rather design robots to.
(I’d be happy to work my own farm, insofar as independence appeals to me. Picking strawberries for min wage, not so much.)
Question to anyone...
Is it theoretically possible to grow a food product - a cashew nut, a carrot, whatever - from plant stem cells, and completely eliminate the tree or the plant?
They’re working on that with meat.
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