Autonomous Farms and the Future of High Tech Agriculture

 In Organic Farming Practices, Pests, Disease & Weeds

There are few endowments among the human race that are as fundamental to our rise in global presence and ongoing existence as our agricultural aptitude. We quickly learned that the cultivation of field crops and livestock was far superior to the primitive nomadic lifestyle we had been living. As a sedentary society, we began to draw tradition, identity, and sustenance from the lands on which we farmed. One could say that this societal shift was the bedrock on which modern civilization began. Over time, farming practices became refined and efficiency improved. As our confidence in food security grew, so too did our population; particularly in the last two centuries.  One source claims “rough estimates put the world population in 1800 at 890-980 million people, while today the world population exceeds 7.4 billion,” (Nicol 2017). Modern day population booms such as this have brought us to what some call the tipping point of global food production. Inventions such as the reaper, the gas powered tractor, and synthetic fertilizer have helped bridge the demand for food set by this exponentially increasing population, but there are still great strides that must be made to provide for a planet that is set to hit nearly 10 billion humans by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization published a report in 2009 that claims food production will have to rise by as much as 70% to feed everyone, (“The Future of Agriculture” 2016). This is not entirely out of the question, but there are some foreseeable issues.

“Agriculture has undergone yield-enhancing shifts in the past, including mechanization before the second world war and the introduction of new crop varieties and agricultural chemicals in the green revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet yields of important crops such as rice and wheat have now stopped rising in some intensively farmed parts of the world, a phenomenon called yield plateauing.” (Dorfman 2009).

The reality is, we have a finite amount of global land suitable for farming and current systems are quickly approaching their maximum yields. We have entered a time where increasing the food supply is no longer a matter of repurposing marginal acreage. No, at this point, the solution will have to come from the innovative minds of our best engineers and horticulturists. Lucky for us, the future may be right around the corner. Agricultural technology has already witnessed accelerating change in areas such as automation, precision sensors, and genetic engineering. While no one of these is going to fully sustain 10 billion humans, utilizing every tool at our disposal may be the key to closing the anticipated food shortage.  There are a few places where this idea of hyper precise smart farming is already being pioneered.

To shed some light on the true potential of high tech Ag, one need not look any further than Mulligan Farm in Avon, New York. This 1400 acre operation features self-driving tractors backed by planters that are capable of sensing the nutritional content of the soil and adjusting plant density accordingly. These automated utility vehicles can be run 24/7 with little to no human supervision and are a fraction of the size of traditional tractors. Precision sensors keep them within an inch of their programmed route, reducing human error and unnecessary fuel consumption (Dobbs 2015). While the implementation of this technology does not drastically increase yields; it does reduce expenses and labor costs. In this way, food can be made cheaper and more available. In another high tech center of the globe, a Japanese company known as Spread has opened the first ever fully automated vegetable factory. The facility is currently capable of producing 30,000 heads of lettuce daily and is quickly expanding. The only part of the process that requires human input is seeding and germination. Couple this with the vertical farming structure and low cost LED lighting and you are left with minimal expense, high output system that essentially runs itself. Spread claims, “though the initial investment in machinery may be costly, the complete automation of the cultivation process will improve output by maximizing growing space and reducing labor costs by almost 50%.” (“The Future of Agriculture” 2016). With such efficiency, it is no surprise that cultivators are willing to foot the bill and change their whole system. But as we have historically witnessed, many farmers are hesitant to adopt new practices.

For some, the idea of automating agriculture is not only a financial concern, but also an ethical dilemma. Mechanization is often times so efficient that robots end up replacing human employees. Over the past half century, we have already seen the need for farm labor drastically reduced. “The really big change has been in the number of full-time workers: from 700,000 in 1951 to around 63,000 in 2013.” (Marshall 2015). This has been in huge part due to the creation of time-saving pesticides. If agricultural robots and automated systems become a viable option for the common farmer, we are guaranteed to see a major downturn in the number of entry level jobs in agriculture. Instead, there will be engineers, electricians, and IT personnel manning the farms of the future. With this foreseeable job shortage riding the coattails of agritechnology, it’s no surprise that we haven’t seen widespread adoption.

Just enough insecticide in just the right spots!

Another facet of the modern day farm that is leaving people on the fence is the presence of unmanned aerial systems, more commonly known as drones. They are currently being equipped with multispectral cameras capable of identifying the exact location of nutrient deficiencies, dehydrated plants, diseases, and pest pressure among whole populations of crops. This dynamic crop imaging is constantly relayed to the farmer who then chooses the best remedial action. Many drones also have tanks carrying pesticides or fertilizer and will apply these directly to afflicted plants. “According to researchers at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, targeted spraying of vegetables used 0.1% of the volume of herbicide used in conventional blanket spraying.” (King 2017). This efficiency not only saves money, but also reduces run off of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer into waterways and surrounding ecosystems. So why aren’t all farms equipped with swarms of automated drones? For one, many people see them as military equipment meant to spy from above and drop bombs on enemies. They unfortunately carry a stigma that confounds their potential for use. If we are going to move forward and modernize agriculture, it is imperative that we cast off this irrelevant connotation. After all, the same science that gave us nitrogen fertilizer was originally used to fuel munitions in World War II.  Similarly with drones; the technology may be the same, but the purpose is now to promote life rather than take it.

Improving agricultural efficiency inevitably requires taking human limitations – fatigue, strength, and error – out of the equation. This has been a reality represented by countless inventions such as the cotton gin or the thresher. As the tool using mammals that we are, I see no reason why mechanization shouldn’t be on the forefront of agricultural progress. Traditionally, we have seen farming equipment scaled upwards for larger, industrial operations. In contrast, automation will cater more to smaller, diversified, low-input farms.  The greatest harmony will be seen in the organic, near organic, and transitionary sector.  Already, we have robots milking our cattle while simultaneously logging information such as their weight, temperature, and food consumption. We have fields armed with moisture sensors capable of activating irrigation systems autonomously when needed. These luxuries are the products of our best minds at work and they should be recognized as nothing short of a miracle. Farming is traditionally a grueling industry, but fortunately this no longer has to be the case. With this in mind, there is hope for future generations in what will become an extensively populated world. I for one can rest easy knowing that there is an intelligent instrument making sure my dinner plate won’t be empty tomorrow.

Chase Lockbeam: student, farmer, educator and blogger.About: I graduated from the University of Minnesota earning a BS in Applied Plant Science with an emphasis in plant improvement. During my undergrad, I spent 3 years working in a transgenic, small-grains breeding program. The foundation of this experience began with training in effective horticultural principles and plant breeding schemes. From here, I moved up into the laboratory where I worked extensively with tissue sampling, histotechniques, DNA extraction, amplification, isolation and sequencing. Naturally, this work was done in conjunction with the management of various agricultural systems; including transgenic growth chambers, greenhouse, and outdoor growing. I have since worked in pharmaceutical farming management and compliance in the developing cannabis industry.


Works Cited

Belton, Padraig. “In the Future, Will Farming Be Fully Automated?” BBC News. BBC, 25 Nov. 2016. Web.

Dobbs, Taylor. “Farms of the Future Will Run on Robots and Drones.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 13 Feb. 2015. Web.

Dorfman, Jason. “Fields of Automation.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 12 Dec. 2009. Web.

“The Future of Agriculture.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 11 May 2016. Web.

Hodgkins, Kelly. “Japan Is Building a Fully-automated Indoor Farm Capable of Producing 30,000 Heads of Lettuce per Day.” Digital Trends. Digital Trends, 31 Aug. 2015. Web.

King, Anthony. “Technology: The Future of Agriculture.” Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, 26 Apr. 2017. Web.

Marshall, Claire. “How Automation Could Benefit Agriculture.” BBC News. BBC, 16 Sept. 2015. Web.

Nicol, Will. “Automated Agriculture: Can Robots, Drones, and AI save Us from Starvation?” Digital Trends. Digital Trends, 02 June 2017. Web.

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