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Eating more, spending less: the fourth agricultural revolution III

A variety of automated systems are being developed and experimented to bring full automation in agriculture. In the photo a drone used to inspect crops. Credit: Harper Adams University
  • Fully Automated farming – Farms without farmers

In UK the Hands Free Hectare project carried out at Harper Adams University has shown that with current technologies is possible to automate the whole farming process from planting, tending to harvesting. The automation has been achieved upgrading existing farming equipment with electronics (and software) to transform each one in a robot and to connect, when needed, one to the other. The project begun in October 2016 and finished with the harvest of 4.5 tons of barley in September 2017.

The researchers working on that project pointed out that it seems the future of farming will benefit more from small equipment, small robots, cooperating with one anther rather than being based on big complex machines. Robots used in industries are usually designed to perform well defined repetitive tasks. On the contrary, those that will be used in agriculture need to be much more flexible and much more aware of their environment. Computer vision is expected to reduce the need of chemicals by 90% thanks to precision agriculture  (you use the chemical only where it is needed with leaf/plant precision).
They need to be able to recognise pests,and plants affected by pest for precision insecticide spraying, they need to identify unwanted weeds and remove them without affecting the crop… Their flexibility is also required in terms of performing a variety of duties (without becoming over-complex) since a number of activities are seldom required, although they are needed, and dedicating a specific robot to an activity seldom performed may not justify the cost.

They also pointed out the need for education to prepare engineers to design autonomous systems able to take joint decisions in the pursuance of a common goal.

There are a number of new companies active in the robo-farming space.

Naio Technologies offers a variety of robots that use computer vision and lasers to operate in orchards and in vegetables fields. Its Oz robots uses electrical motors and can operate without human supervision for three hours, continuously, before recharging.

PlantTape offers a robot to manage the whole process from seeding to transplanting in the field, whilst Abundant Robotics is tackling the problem of harvesting fruits. This is a difficult problem for a robot since it has to look for the fruit (like apple) reach it across a barrier of branches (working out a strategy to get to the fruit) and then pick it up (and store it) without exerting too much pressure that would ruin the fruit. This requires sophisticated sensors and actuators as well as intelligence.

In the coming decades we might expect the emergence of a symbioses between robo-farmers and plants that creates a cooperative environment minimising the activities and maximising the yield.

Closed and controlled environment, like the ones used in vertical farming, are better suited for more effective cooperation and will likely be the first to see this evolution.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.