What will farming be like in 10 years' time?
The future of farming is about producing more from less. Given that one-third of global food is wasted, if one could eliminate this waste and at the same time improve efficiency, the environmental impact of farming could be reduced by a third.
This is not being addressed effectively at present, but in 10 years’ time, such waste will not be tolerated. The history of mankind is such that whenever a resource is scarce, measures are implemented to optimise its use.
Farming will have to operate within far stricter controls. This is the backdrop to the vision of farming 10 years from now – highly regulated, with very effective control systems to monitor compliance. Enhanced efficiency and continuous monitoring and control will be delivered through precision agriculture on robotised farms.
We are in the midst of the smart revolution in farming based on precision agriculture delivering almost incredible levels of control over farming operations.
Precision agriculture uses the internet of things to collect and analyse data to provide decision support for the farmer. While one would think that we have advanced a long way in this area over the past decade, in fact we are only at the starting point.
Within five years, comprehensive data-gathering and operations management systems will be the norm, with most of the day-to-day decisions and strategic options provided via a computer-based decision support system. Within a decade, the fully robotised farm will have arrived.
Robots, ground-based or aerial, will be the workhorses, replacing current mechanisation systems as well as the farmer.
Cheap miniaturised sensors are being developed using biodegradable materials that can be located in their hundreds around the farm (on the soil, on plants, in animal houses, etc) – measuring parameters such as temperature, relative humidity, air speed, pathogens, pH, etc.
These sensors send data to cloud, enabling the computer-based farm management system interpret the data and take appropriate action. These are so cheap they do not need to be recovered from the field – just allow them to biodegrade.
In the farm of the future, these sensors will be spread using drones, some will fall to ground (the soil sensors) and others will fall on the crop and measure parameters such as fungal growth on the leaves or canopy relative humidity (an indicator of blight risk).
You could say that the plants will be talking to the computer-based management system. If the plant has a fungal infection, it “calls the doctor” – to administer a fungicide.
So, where is all this leading to? Mankind needs to operate agricultural systems in a highly efficient manner. This requires the benefits that arise from economies of scale. The only way that this can be achieved is through the use of smart farming systems managed by complex computer programs and delivered through an army of robots, both ground-based and flying.
In recent decades, tractors and agricultural machines have become huge. The multiple passes of these heavy machines contribute to soil compaction that is evident across wide swathes of land.
The robots of the future will be small, lightweight and operate in flocks. They will be either ground-based (eg, crawling or creeping) or flying (drones).
In 10 years’ time, fleets of huge machines will be replaced with smaller, lighter machines, minimising the level of soil compaction. These small centrally-controlled autonomous machines will, in turn, facilitate precision farming, where different areas of the field, and even individual plants, can be treated or harvested separately, optimising and potentially reducing while ensuring high-quality harvest output.
Picture the following: a tillage farm with no human input. All operations are carried out by robots. And the brains behind this is the master computer – an Mháistir.
An Mháistir has replaced the farm manager, and s/he is supported by a smart system that collects all the required data via a variety of sensors (sensing soil, crop, environmental, market, weather information) and analyses these to develop the farm management plan, and issue orders to the robots.
These robots will be a mix of micro-tractor size, small combine size along with aerial drones (from hand-size to micro-lite size). They will operate in swarms, their light weight avoiding soil compaction and offering tremendous manoeuvrability; and if one robot breaks down, the army continues to work and even compensates for the lost machine to ensure that schedules are adhered to.
These robots will be low-cost to build and will be self-maintaining, with in-built self-diagnostics capable of summoning an air ambulance (a specialised carrier drone) if repair can’t be effected on the spot.
All inputs for the farm (fertilisers, spray chemicals, robot repair, etc) are managed by an Mháistir, ordering and delivering supplies as needed. It even manages the bank account. And Big Brother is also watching – the regulatory authority has full access to an Mháistir’s database – enabling detailed monitoring of (even controlling) every operation on the farm.
An Mháistir is as much on the regulator’s side as the farmer’s side. There are no secrets, and hence compliance will be absolute, even to the extent that penalties for breach of regulation are deducted immediately from your bank account.
These can carry cameras that see in UV, infrared as well as visible light. Under remote or fully autonomous control, they can see, count and record aspects of plant growth that the human eye can’t see, and traverse more ground in a shorter space of time than a human. The larger drones (with payloads in 10s of kg) can carry out tasks such as fertiliser spreading, spraying or product transport to and from the field.
At least 20% of harvested crops are rejected due to inappropriate size or defects. Imagine if you could harvest only those plants that are perfect. That’s where an Mháistir comes in. It directs the army of robots to selectively harvest only those plants that meet the harvest (eg retailer’s) criteria. And for those supplying a fresh market, repeated daily harvesting of the optimum quality plants is no problem. A drone will deliver the produce directly to the retailer – fresh from the farm, only harvested an hour ago.
Shock-horror, you might well say, but an Mháistir is coming. It will arrive as an apprentice within five years, working alongside the experienced farmer. But, it is very competitive and ambitious, and will send the farmer out to pasture, taking over the management of the whole enterprise.
While the farmer will be allowed visit the farm, visits will be controlled. The farmer will only be allowed walk the farm when soil and crop conditions and safety regulations allow. But it’s not all bad news – an Mháistir will enhance the efficiency of the enterprise, minimise environmental impact and maximise profits, providing the farmer with a comfortable, albeit forced, retirement.
Scale of operation is important, with small farms finding it increasingly difficult to compete – the larger the farm, the more efficiently it can be operated. Between 2000 and 2010, average farm size in the UK increased from 71ha to 90ha.
This rapid pace of change reflects market forces and the need to achieve economies of scale. To make way for such increases in holding size, hedgerows were removed to enlarge fields in order to accommodate big machinery, leading to significant adverse environmental impact and changes in the farm ownership patterns.
However, on the new robotised farm, the individual robots are relatively small, and do not need large fields. And, just like an army of ants, the army of robots are all commanded centrally, and work just as efficiently in a patchwork quilt countryside as in prairie-style land. It’s akin to bringing back the old Irish meitheal system, except the workers are robots: perhaps we should term it the Robo-Meitheal. Ni neart go cur le cheile – there is strength in unity. So, scale of operation is provided, not by increasing field size but by the centralised control of an army of small and highly manoeuvrable robots operating in a patchwork of fields spread across the countryside.
This will lead to the revival of a type of cooperative structure whereby a group of farmers hire an Mháistir to operate their collective farms. An Mháistir will have a land bank that it will operate as if it’s one large holding, with bespoke operations for every field, and areas within fields, using precision agriculture.
For example, the array of sensors will provide intelligence on plant stress, soil nitrogen requirements across a field, etc, with resolution of square metres, not hectares. The farmer (human – for now anyway) gets the income from the system while gaining from the economies of scale provided by Robo-Meitheal.
You could say that an Mháistir is the ultimate contractor, providing for all your needs and delivering on a scale that you, as a single holder, could not achieve.
At Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, they have a really interesting research and demonstration project: Hands-Free Hectare. The work is being carried out in association with Precision Decisions Ltd which specialises in precision farming systems.
The idea is that a hectare of wheat is grown without a single person entering the plot. All operations, from tillage right through to harvesting are carried out by robots – remote-controlled tractors, small robots (for weeding) and drones (for spraying, fertiliser application).
The drones also help monitor the crop, replacing the farmer’s daily walk the crop with the drone’s fly the crop. And as it does its rounds, the drone talks to the crop, pinging the small crop sensors and other sensors in the field, to check if all’s OK.
They can detect zones where conditions may induce an outbreak of disease, and hence check with the farm management computer as to what action to take. Stay tuned to farmersjournal.ie for more on the Hands-Free Hectare.