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Wednesday [29.11.17]3 min read

Could robo-crops save us from hunger?

The fall of humanity as a result of dwindling food supply has long been a go-to premise for science fiction writers. Films like 1973’s Soylent Green, Interstellar and most recently Blade Runner 2049 have all offered their own unique answer to the question ‘what if we ran out of food?’

Outside of the cinema though, just how realistic is a global food crisis?

In 2013, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation predicted that by 2050, the world will need to be producing 70% more food to feed the estimated 9.1 billion people who will be living on earth at that point. Partner this with the potential negative effects of climate change on crops, urbanisation of traditional farming regions and current trends regarding global demand for high quality food, and you can start to see the makings of a pretty grim tale.

While we’re not exactly at the point of relocating planets, we are certainly on the path to solutions. Advances in transportation, storage, and processing i.e. 3D printing food using long-life ingredients all play a big part in meeting food demand. However, the onus still remains on those who are producing the food – the farmers.

Building pressure means that farmers around the globe will need to basically increase their output. While it’s not overly efficient to just buy more land or hire more labour, some new developments and methods in farming technology could reduce costs and boost output to levels we have never seen before.

Precision Agriculture

Like Google, Facebook and almost every company operating in the digital era, farmers have realised that data = power. According to the CSIRO the concept of ‘Precision Agriculture’ is aimed at:

“Exert[ing] more control over a production system by recognising variation and managing different areas of land differently, according to a range of economic and environmental goals.”

Basically, farmers are using technology to collect large amounts of data on their farms in order to manage all of their produce and stock based on specific needs and characteristics, minimising wastage and increasing output.

This desire for data and efficiency has led to the birth of agricultural tech (ag-tech) companies who are focused on developing tech-based solutions, tools and products for farmers. And you better believe it’s a growing field.

‘The internet of things’ is often associated with the kind of products that would appear in a Buzzfeed list of ‘Top 5 useless modern kitchen appliances’, however farmers are finding much more practical uses for networks of connected smart objects.

A lot of ag-tech companies produce sensor devices that can be planted in the ground to give farmers a detailed map of their farm’s physical landscape. They can also scan the ground for moisture and fertilizer levels as well as pests and soil nutrition, allowing farmers to monitor in live-time through farm management software. With this knowledge, farmers can understand what kind of issues or opportunities may exist in different areas of the farm, while also allowing them to make informed predications to guide future decisions.

Furthermore, as a potential solution for the effects of climate change on farmland, this kind of ‘smart-farming’ is being used to create sophisticated indoor growing methods. For example, The OpenAG Initiative at MIT Media Lab uses ‘personal food computers’ to create ‘climate recipes’ which can be downloaded to other personal food computers and used to reproduce climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, oxygen, hydrogen etc. in an effort to basically replicate the perfect environments for growing specific crops.

The robotic revolution

Paired with in-ground sensors, one of the most widely adapted pieces of ag-tech to date is the drone due to its ability to capture multiple forms of aerial imagery. Seeing a crop from the air can show patterns that expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest infestations.

Drones provide a highly efficient way for farmers to survey crops across whatever intervals they desire in order to track changes on the farm. However, the next step in farm tech will not only recognise changes, but may be able to act upon them autonomously.

The solar-powered ‘Ladybird’ and ‘RIPPA’ robots developed by the University of Sydney’s Professor Salah Sukkarieh, have been designed to scan vegetable and fruit crops. They can detect pests, collect data on the crop’s nutritional development, and even conduct weeding and harvesting based on deep learning algorithms.

Professor Sukkarieh is a world leader in the ag-tech field who believes that the future of farming will rely on networks of autonomous devices like this. “We need to be thinking beyond the robotic devices themselves, and focus on how future farms will be structured and operate as a whole with autonomous systems.” He states in an article for The University of Sydney.

Furthermore, he believes that the next generation of farmers may just be autonomous robots, which is something we may see sooner than later.

Japanese company SPREAD has recently announced that it will be opening the first fully automated vertical farm. Techno Farm, which sounds more like a music festival than potential solution to world hunger, could produce 30,000 heads of lettuce each day once it’s fully operational in early 2018. The process of raising the seedling all the way through to harvest will be done completely by robots, increasing the company’s output by 30% and reducing labour costs by 50%.

The future of farming

Earlier in 2017, farm equipment company John Deere opened up ‘John Deere Labs’ on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, in the hope to find start-ups solving robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence problems that may be of use in the agriculture space. Their first move was a $305 million investment in Blue River Technology; a developer of crop-spraying equipment that relies on machine learning. The move not only shows Deere’s commitment to embracing new tech, but it highlights the overall attitudes of a very traditional industry in reshaping itself.

Professor Sukkarieh is one of many who think that this new era of agriculture will counter the ‘Robots stealing jobs’ narrative and actually create work in an industry that is struggling to engage younger generations. Speaking to the University of Sydney, he states that the introduction of on-farm robotics and intelligent systems into teaching and learning programs for rural and regional schools will be a major step in the future of farming.

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