A Nuffield Farming Scholarship
Since Jan 2012 I have been travelling across the globe visiting farmers, research facilities, universities and commercial businesses researching the world of robotics in agriculture.
Its no secret that the world is under pressure to increase food production, a demanding growing population, changing diets, energy cost and the effects of climate change all put pressure on farmers to produce more food, cheaper and using less resources.
Since the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 1700s, food producers around the world have strived to increase outputs to feed growing populations. However one thing has remained constant: human interaction. With fewer people working larger cropped areas, crop husbandry is becoming shadowed by greater reliance on and usage of agrochemicals. With pressure to reduce inputs and increase production there needs to be a complete paradigm change, removing the focus from field level operations to plant level. Robotic technology has now reached a point where systems are robust, reliable and cost effective enough to make a huge impact on the way food is produced.
The goal of my report was to see where the world was with agricultural robotics in terms of technology, requirements and the inevitable legislation which would be involved with unmanned machines. My focus was to find out how this will affect the everyday life of those involved at farm and support levels within the agricultural sectors. The journey took me to commercial manufacturers in central Europe, long running agricultural robotics projects in northern Europe, remote farmers in Australia and a fleet of robotic tractors including harvesters, sprayers and rice planters in Japan. The range of concept and commercial projects I learned about was astounding: from autonomous mines operating in the remotest parts of Australia to self-driving cars in the busy, unpredictable streets of Parma, Italy, robotics and automation are set to become part of everyday life – and sooner than one may expect.
In academic agricultural robotics research, primary focus was on smaller, plant-centric devices which could monitor and treat individual plant requirements through the study of Phytotechnology; a term we will hear more often in the future. At the same time the traditional commercial manufacturers were focusing attentions on automating the current agricultural practices, thus improving throughput at the expense of crop and soil health.
One common issue highlighted across the globe was safety and accountability. With no clear guidelines or responsibilities acknowledged outside of the projects, and little government or legislative involvement, many systems are soon to be denied a route to market. Paradigm-changing technology in agriculture is traditionally met with distrust, and robotics will inevitably be met with questions of redundancy, safety and detriment to plant health. I hope my report will inform and help to alleviate the concerns of both producers and legislation makers, for robotics and automation are the future and are going to influence every part of everyday life, both on and off the farm.