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Tractors and large machinery are symbolic of farming where crops are treated as one, but tiny automated robots could revolutionize the industry by caring for plants at an individual level.
Mechanisation changed the way farming is done; it bought tractors and combine harvested for grains, and automated manual labour previously carried out by threshers and bundlers. The advent of machines made industrial farming on large scales possible.
Utilizing robots could do the same for other crops, from mapping the land and planting seeds, the caring for crops and forensically weeding and finally harvesting produce. It could end a farmer’s dependence on the ploughing process which reduce the fertility of the land and the huge tractors that compact the soil and restrict growing seasons.
Robots are already used to milk cows and digitized systems are employed to feed chicken – some of the technology is becoming established in some areas of farming. In America, harvesting of lettuce and strawberries is already automated, and robots help weed and cultivate, and prune grapevines in France.
Prototypes are a combination of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, GPS, machine vision, drones and material science. GPS-guided tractors are currently used to lay out fields, and drones are being employed to automate field inspection for pest or weed outbreaks and high-resolution cameras and algorithmic processing of the images can help find issues before the farmer can.
Another area where robots could help is with plant breeding. Humans currently evaluate seedlings, but robots equipped with machine vision and AI could be taught to recognise desirable traits, ending the laborious process of sorting seedlings.
Case Study: Tomatoes
Weeding is labour-intensive process, but robots could take on the task. Each tomato plant is given its own GPS coordinate so robots know where they are, and the robots are equipped with machine vision and intelligence to know the difference between the plant and weeds. The robot can navigate the plants and kill weeds with a hoe or microjet of herbicide, or in some robots, destroying the weed with a laser.
This individual attention to each plant means that the cost of blanketing the crop with herbicide is no longer necessary, meaning financial and environmental savings as well as a reduction in wasteful and chemical-dependant practices. It also offers the opportunity to irrigate or fertilise only the plants that need it, meaning resources can be conserved.
Precision farming as it is known, means each plant is given the same care someone might give plants in their garden, but on a field scale.
Case Study: Wheat
The Small Robot Company have built Rachel, as small orange robot capable of mapping fields, but it is hoped she will be upgraded to be able to fulfil all jobs in the entire growing process. Resembling a cross between an expensive toy and a space rover, Rachel has a Lidar system which she uses to orient herself, and a smartphone for communication. She takes close up photos of wheat plants in the field and the soil surrounding them every three seconds to build up a forensic map of the area.
Rachel could have dramatic implications for food security and the natural world. She could enable crops to be tended at an individual level, equalling big environmental gains. Often hedgerows have to be destroyed for large-scale machinery, Rachel would prevent this meaning homes for wildlife such as bees. Pesticides could only be applied to those plants that need it, and there would be less soil erosion, which can exacerbate flooding. And once successful in rearing wheat, Rachel can be adapted to other similar crops such as barley, maize and corn.
Case Study: Strawberries
Harvesting delicate crops such as strawberries can be a laborious and back-breaking task as it is still carried out by hand. But hands have become scarce at harvest time, and farmers have been turning to automation to plug the gap.
When harvesting strawberries, you need to work fast to ensure the supply is constant and none of the crop is wastes. Humans are capable of identifying ripe fruits and picking them carefully, but big machines can be clumsy and do not possess the same level of intelligence.
Strawberry-picking machines are in use, but it is taking times to perfect them, with each iteration of the robot better than the last.
Robot farmers have the ability or revolutionise the industry in the same way mechanization did. They can map fields and harvest crops, particularly useful at a time when the human workforce is ageing and scarce. Tiny automated machines could take care of the entire growing process, using fewer chemicals and becoming more efficient, particularly useful for small to medium sized farms.