Robots on Farms Could Fight Climate Change and Grow More Food

Farms are about to get a whole lot more automated.

A robo-revolution is coming to the farm of the future, and it could cut greenhouse gases and support a growing global population.

Researchers at the University of Florida published a paper in the journal Science Robotics Wednesday calling on agriculture to get ready for the future, with drones, autonomous vehicles, sensors and more paving the way for sustainability. Senthold Asseng, who wrote the paper along with Frank Asche, tells Inverse that these technologies could solve a number of problems like tractors pressing down soil and reducing the space for air and water. Iowa State University found that this compaction can reduce yields by 20 percent alone.

“A substantial increase in sustainability will come from replacing heavy machinery with lightweight robots and with drones overcoming the soil compaction problem of modern agriculture,” Asseng says. “Sustainability will also be increased by optimizing fertilizer and pesticides for each section of a field and at times where they are needed, so losses with runoff and leaching will be minimized or totally avoided.”

It comes at a time of great concern for agriculture, as experts warn that climate change could push some states to dramatically reconsider its food sources as crops start to fail. The World Bank has warned that 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, with food scarcity high on the list of concerns. Around one billion people in the world go hungry as 1.7 billion measure overweight from a high intake of calories.

The pair’s outline involves robots and drones taking to the field to both complete tasks and harvest data. Other sources, like satellites and miniature sensors, can provide more details about the field’s current status. This information is then fed to algorithms and simulation models to understand all manner of pressures, like weather forecasts, consumer demand, market shifts. This will enable experts to take decisions to boost production, and could even aid decision-makers at higher levels to ensure nationwide food stability.

The farm of the future as described by the team.
The farm of the future as described by the team.

The system could help avoid disrupting the ecosystem. The paper notes that thousands of fish are killed in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess fertilizer washing into the Mississippi River.

“Reduced nitrogen fertilizer loss will reduce carbon emissions,” Asseng says. “Reorganizing land-use enabled through having much more flexible drones and robots to attended small areas, will be another plus for sustainability by allowing for arranging land use in the landscape to reduce pest and disease pressure. Altogether, this could reduce energy use and therefore additionally reduce carbon emissions.”

The present-day farmer would advise teams on how best to manage these future outposts, but teams would gradually transition to more centralized roles with data scientists and programmers taking on a more important role.

Although Asseng and Asche’s research focused mostly on plant production, other research shows how energy usage could make farms more sustainable. Cochin International Airport in India used the land underneath its solar panels to grow 60 tons of vegetables in a year. The idea is known as “agrophotovoltaics,” and researchers at Germany’s University of Hohenheim found it could increase land use efficiency by 60 percent. Using solar to generate the farm’s electricity could help make even further progress.

“The robots in future farms could be powered by solar or any renewable energy source,” Asseng says. “At least this would be desirable, but is not a pre-request for the system we described in this paper.”

Drones: farmers of the future?
Drones: farmers of the future?

With the planet moving toward a worst-case scenario for climate change, a more sustainable approach could be needed now more than ever.

Read the paper’s introduction here:

In face of the global challenge to produce more food because of population growth, radical rethinking is needed to mitigate the constraints imposed by ever dwindling arable land and fresh water in a changing climate. Recently, there have been breakthroughs in improving the capabilities and the costs of a range of technologies relevant to food production systems. We are already becoming accustomed to the idea of autonomous machinery, like tractors and combine harvesters, navigating their way up and down a field. Technological advances have equipped robots and drones to accomplish precise tasks and simultaneously to collect large amounts of data. The stream, density, and resolution of a wide range of data from satellites are continuously improving. With low-cost wireless micro-sensor technologies, these data can be relayed to remote control stations, where “big data” generated in a particular food production system can be collected and analyzed. For instance, in a particular field, data with a temporal resolution of seconds and spatial resolution of cm2 can be collated from different levels of the crop canopy, from the soil surface, and from the subsoil. These data can be linked to existing systems, simulation models, or machine learning algorithms for model building to optimize food production and resource use. Amounts of fertilizer or pesticide for crops or feed for livestock or fish can be calculated in relation to demands, weather and seasonal forecasts, market outlooks, and consumer requirements. On-demand, low-cost advice for troubleshooting nutrient management and recognition and treatment of weeds, diseases, and pests may be accessed on the web because all components will be connected to the internet.

Ocean-Based Methods Against Climate Change Need More Attention, Study Says