If agriculture is to continue to feed the world, it needs to become more like manufacturing, says Geoffrey Carr. Fortunately, that is already beginning to happen. A technological revolution in farming led by advances in robotics and sensing technologies looks set to disrupt modern practice.
Over the centuries, as farmers have adopted more technology in their pursuit of greater yields, the belief that ‘bigger is better’ has come to dominate farming, rendering small-scale operations impractical. But advances in robotics and sensing technologies are threatening to disrupt today’s agribusiness model. “There is the potential for artificial intelligent robots to change the economic model of farming so that it becomes feasible to be a small producer again,” says robotics engineer George Kantor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Twenty-first century robotics and sensing technologies have the potential to solve problems as old as farming itself. It is believe, by moving to a robotic and an AI agricultural system, we can make crop production significantly more efficient and more sustainable in Africa too. In greenhouses devoted to fruit and vegetable production, engineers are exploring automation as a way to reduce costs and boost quality (see ‘Ripe for the picking’). Devices to monitor vegetable growth, as well as robotic pickers, are currently being tested. For livestock farmers, sensing technologies can help to manage the health and welfare of their animals (‘Animal trackers’). And work is underway to improve monitoring and maintenance of soil quality (‘Silicon soil saviours’), and to eliminate pests and disease without resorting to indiscriminate use of agrichemicals (‘Eliminating enemies’).