Farming’s robot army: How micro machines could be the future of food production
From yields to farm equipment, for decades farmers have toiled away under the impression that bigger is always better when it comes to food production.
But for one engineering expert, encouraging farmers to turn their back on big kit could be the answer to more profitable, sustainable and productive agriculture.
For many years, Simon Blackmore, professor of engineering at Harper Adams University, has been focusing his research on how farm machinery can help answer the challenge of feeding the world.
He is now convinced that small can definitely be beautiful, and he’s trying to encourage arable farmers to start thinking that way too.
“We have a lot of weaknesses in our current farming system,” says Professor Blackmore. “We use too much energy, expensive chemicals that aren’t on target, and large machines that damage the soil.
“Crop production must become more flexible and efficient than it presently is — we need to focus on more intelligently-targeted inputs.”
To do that, Prof Blackmore says, the farming industry needs to get ready to take the next step from precision farming — which made huge strides in developing efficiencies — to embracing robotic agriculture.
They also need to prepare themselves for the idea that the progression will see farm kit become smaller, not bigger.
“Tractors have been getting bigger all the time over the last 60 years,” Prof Blackmore says. “Economies of scale are good because we are increasing work rates, but for smaller farms with small fields, large machinery is no good.
“Precision farming has also taught us that while we can increase efficiencies, we can rarely increase yield. So the question we have to ask is where will these increased yields come from?”
While crop genetics will play a part to some extent, Professor Blackmore says the answer will undoubtedly come from robots.
“Small automated machines can work in small fields, so that means we have opportunities to increase production in a sustainable way,” he says. “It will help those small family farms be more productive.
“We need to break out of thinking that bigger is always better,” he adds. “About 90% of the energy going into cultivation is there to replace damage caused by machinery and soil compaction is estimated to cost £400m/year in England and Wales. We need to make changes.”
To make those changes Professor Blackmore and his team at Harper Adams have developed a series of ultra-light farming robots, which he says will improve yields by helping producers to react to real-time changes in the field.
“Much of what we are trying to do is replicate what we do in our own gardens in the field.”
His armoury of robots so far includes micro-tillage systems, which cultivate for individual seeds, robotic weeders, and micro-sprayers: disruptive technologies, he says, which were developed by thinking differently about the challenges growers face.
“Much of what we are trying to do is replicate what we do in our own gardens in the field,” he says. “When we’re gardening, we go and look at what the problems are, and then deal with them in the most efficient way.”
Machines that behave like people
With modern farm machinery, the approach has been to take large kit into the field as few times as possible, both to save on time and fuel costs, which isn’t as effective as it could be.
While it’s obviously not practical to send someone out to hand-pick weeds — which costs about £2000/ha — developing robots which can behave as a person would approach a problem is a solution, he says.
It’s not just about saving time and costs on-farm. Using this new wave of technology will help farmers meet environmental goals and overcome challenges around chemical use.
“Rather than putting the smarts into the chemicals, let’s put it into the machine so that 100% of the chemical goes onto the weed.”
“There’s so much debate around the use of glyphosate and it’s potential impact on the environment,” Prof Blackmore says. “Rather than putting the smarts into the chemicals, let’s put it into the machine so that 100% of the chemical goes onto the weed.
“About 80% of grass in the UK is herbicide resistant,” he adds. “It takes 10 years and £250m to develop active ingredients — rather than looking to chemicals for the answer, we should be considering the alternatives.”
These disruptive technologies will also provide the opportunity to streamline the supply chain, helping farmers get the best possible income from their produce by matching supplies of high-quality products to consumer demand.
“We need to add value to the producer before produce leaves the farm, and with selective harvesters, for example, [see box] we have the ability to grade production for a point of harvest, without the value going to the processor.
“Most of these robots will be used in horticulture first, but we are looking for investment to bring them to market and develop their use,” he added.
‘We’re on the cusp of something new with these technologies, and it’s exciting to think where they could take crop production.”
The robotic farming army
Micro-sprayers: Using technology from inkjet printers you’d find in an office, scientists at Harper Adams have developed a spray boom with seven nozzles. Using active shape recognition, the sprayers can identify 26 different species of weeds, spraying the correct dosage of herbicide on the plant to kill it, and reducing chemical inputs by 99% in the process
Hyper-weeders: Scientists have a created vision-guided weeding system, which identifies weeds amongst the crops and targets them with lasers. In-field trials of lettuce crops involved the robots identifying the growing point of a weed — known as the meristem — and targeting them with heat. By rupturing the meristem cell walls, it stops weed growth.
Selective harvesters: Entire fields are harvested in one go — and not when every plant has reached optimum maturity. This ‘slaughter harvesting’ means that up to 60% of harvested crops do not meet retail quality. Selective harvesters allow growers to phase their harvest — assessing the quality of plants and only harvesting when they meat the quality and quantity the supply chain needs
What are disruptive technologies?
Disruptive technologies are innovations which create new markets or services, and eventually become so popular that they overtake the established way of doing things. Some of the most recent disruptive companies include Uber, which has become the largest taxi business in the world, and Airbnb, which is now the world’s largest hotel chain.
Like many disruptors, they rely on smartphone apps, collecting, sharing and analysing data which is saved in the cloud.
In agriculture, the opportunities for disruptive technology to drive changes are already underway in some sectors: sensors can be used to analyse everything from cattle rumination to water and soils, while drones help growers to collect information about crops that they’d otherwise struggle to collect.
A version of this article first appeared in Farm Business