The fully automated farm of the future requires no human hands at all

  • Hands Free Hectare: welcome to a farm without farmers
  • Bugs for lunch? Crickets could soon be on our plates
  • High-tech harvesting heralds a bright farming future
  • Changing the face of farming, one step at a time

Imagine watching your favourite TV show and enjoying a cup of coffee. Suddenly, your phone buzzes. It’s a notification that your driverless tractor has finished spraying your crops. A few taps later, there’s aerial photos showing you the final result. This is how farmers might spend their afternoons in the future. And thanks to tech innovations that are rapidly advancing numerous industries – including agriculture – that scenario doesn’t seem so far fetched.

The agricultural sector has witnessed significant tech advances over the years, but the need for innovation is never-ending. Just think of those estimated 9.8 billion people who’ll inhabit the Earth by 2050 – conventional farming methods won’t be able to provide enough food for all of us. What’s more, the effects of climate change aren’t making it any easier for farmers to keep crop yields high. So, how can we prepare ourselves for the future? The solution is smart automation.

Hands Free Hectare: welcome to a farm without farmers

One success in farm automation comes from researchers at the Harper Adams University, who collaborated with Precision Decisions, a UK-based agricultural company specialising in precision farming solutions. With their ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project, the researchers wanted to automate every stage of crop production, from planting to monitoring, and harvesting. As a result of their research, one hectare of barley was produced without the need for human workers.

To make this happen, they used already available machinery and modified it, adding new features such as a GPS system and cameras. For spraying and planting, the team used a tractor developed by a Tokyo-based agricultural equipment manufacturer. The tractor is smaller than the usual bulky equipment used on fields, which often compacts the soil and affects the overall health of the plants. For this reason, the researchers believe that the future of efficient farming can be found in fleets of small autonomous vehicles. The team has also used drones to collect soil samples, allowing them to monitor their field remotely. However, the project encountered some challenges. For instance, during the planting stage, the self-driving tractor didn’t follow its course in some parts of the field, and as a result, the crops weren’t planted in a regular line. They’re planning to repeat this project with a winter crop, hoping to overcome these obstacles and taking their hands-free farming to the next level.

Self-driving tractor spraying crops in a field
With their ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project, the researchers wanted to automate every stage of crop production, from planting to monitoring, and harvesting

Bugs for lunch? Crickets could soon be on our plates

Unlike the Hands Free Hectare project, which focused on barley, Texas-based startup Aspire offers something completely different. And those with sensitive stomachs might not like the idea. Aspire is working on farming crickets (yes, the same crickets that provide the ‘background music’ in your garden on sultry summer nights), which might become our go-to food in the next few years. Aspire’s cricket factory, which opened its doors in August this year, is leveraging technology to automate production. Instead of using a workforce limited by human needs such as food and sleep, the company integrated a robotic system that can monitor and feed the crickets 24 hours a day. Thanks to sensor technology, any time the crickets need more food, the robotic module will be there to provide it. The sensors of this ‘cricket mommy’ also proved to be useful for monitoring the cricket babies’ life stages, from hatching to adulthood. Using such tech, Aspire managed to increase its production and decrease labour costs, bringing this rather gross but excellent source of protein closer to markets around the globe.

The company is planning to expand its cricket farm within the next two years. Its current area is about 2,300 m2, which enables them to produce 22 million crickets per month. But by the end of 2019, the company hopes to expand to an area of 23,000 m2. For Aspire, producing crickets for human consumption isn’t just a weird trend. Instead, they see it as a better, greener alternative to the food we have on our plates. Crickets are a high-protein food, and rich in critical nutrients like calcium and iron. And above all, they don’t require large amounts of food and water to grow, in contrast to the cows, pigs, and chickens we now consume.

High-tech harvesting heralds a bright farming future

The perfect example of how future farms might work is provided by Taylor Farms, one of the biggest producers of freshly-picked fruits and vegetables in North America. Taylor Farms harvests around 680,000 kilograms of lettuce every day in the Salinas Valley, an agricultural region in California. To make the entire process quick and efficient, it relies on autonomous equipment. For instance, its automated harvester eliminates the need for human workers, who used to spend eight or more hours a day harvesting the lettuces. The machine uses computer vision to recognise the lettuce before cutting it with a water jet system. The produce is then lifted to the top of the harvesting platform where workers can sort it. Later, in its packing plant, a robotic arm packs 60 to 80 lettuces per minute. Using robotic machinery in the packing stage is especially important for food safety, because, unlike human workers, robotic arms are less likely to transfer bacteria to the food. So far, Taylor Farms used this automated system only for harvesting romaine lettuce, but they’re planning to try it on iceberg lettuce as well – a bigger challenge since it’s more delicate.

Changing the face of farming one step at a time

As population growth and climate change continue to disrupt the agricultural sector, the adoption of new tech and new farming methods is inevitable. Automated farming practices are saving both time and money, making them a feasible option for farmers. But concerns have been raised over whether or not that giant step toward robotic farming might make humans obsolete. According to Kieren Walsh, an agronomist on the Hands Free Hectare project, we don’t need to worry, because human workers will still have their place in the agriculture industry in the future. After all, who’s going to monitor all that machinery? Although innovations will be fast and furious, it’ll take some time before modern farming transforms itself into a truly automated industry.

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