FarmTech: Farming for the Future

April 9, 2019

Most people would agree that the purpose of technology should be to assist its users to live a better, more comfortable, easier life. And to have positive impact on a personal, societal and global level. Solving the looming food crisis predicted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) among others would be one way of achieving this goal. It is predicted that by 2050 the world population will have reached 9.1 billion people all needing food to survive.

However, the FAO predicts that food production would need to increase by 70% to feed the population. Another compounding factor will be the economic rise of Asian countries with increasingly large middle-class populations demanding more resource intensive food products such as pork, beef and dairy. In addition, Innovate UK predicts that climate change will reduce crop yields by 5–10%. In what has been termed Ag 3.0 the farming sector is reacting to this pressing need by incorporating cutting edge technology from the fields of AI, robotics, IoT, autonomous vehicles and drones – a process that Goldman Sachs believes will increase crop yields by 70% by 2050. This series of articles looks at some ways this is being implemented.

Solving the looming food crisis predicted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) among others would be one way of achieving the goal of having a positive impact on a personal, societal and global level.

Simon Sherrington, MD

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Entirely automating the farming process would significantly increase the speed and efficiency of agriculture, in the same way that the invention of agricultural machines such as the threshing machine or the combine harvester did – both reducing labour demands and increasing efficiency. In 2017 a project was started at Harper Adams University in the UK called the ‘hands-free hectare’. The project demonstrated the potential of autonomous farming by harvesting a field of barley. In Spring 2017 the team grew a field of barley using autonomous vehicles, the process from pre-drilling to harvest involved 10 different steps including:

  • spraying herbicide and crop sowing using an autonomous tractor
  • using a small robotic rover to monitor soil health and moisture
  • during the growing period, using a drone to take aerial images of the crops to assess health
  • an unmanned combine harvester passing over the field collecting in the crop.

The team now plans to improve its technology for future projects, including working on increasing the autonomy of the tractor and other vehicles so that they can drive from shed to field, as well as improvements to their vehicle-to-everything (V2X) systems to allow them to interact with other objects such as a field gate, enabling it to open and close on command. Despite the successes of this project, an entirely autonomous farm may still be quite far off.

In the following articles, we look at some solutions taking place in different parts of the agriculture sector:

FarmTech: Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles

FarmTech: Big Data and the IoT

FarmTech: Application of Drones

The advantages for farmers of using connected sensor networks to save money, labour and time will continue to provide impetus for them to continue adopting and integrating the technology into their farms. This will have a knock-on effect of helping ease the expected food shortages mentioned at the beginning of the article. Although agriculture may not be the sexiest application of technology it does demonstrate how technology is being used for good. When technology can be beneficial for users and mankind at large, this should receive admiration; headlines of horrifying what-if scenarios may attract more click-based traffic, but the good that technology can achieve should be commended and more widely circulated to the general public. It is only by doing this that we can avoid defensive, fear-based rejection of technology. Technology can help humanity facing global issues that could affect everyone and planetary life itself.

Other FarmTech Stuff

FarmTech: Application of Drones

Drones are eyes in the sky helping farmers gain insight into crop growth and about microclimates within individual fields …