In Shropshire, England, a team of robot farmers has just received news that 2018 will see them gather another harvest. Last year, a whole field of Barley was sown and harvested by an autonomous tractor and unmanned combine harvester, along with other robots. There was no human being driving the tractor, and no farmer assessing the land.
This was the work of the Hands Free Hectare Project, run by a team at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England. Now, the team has been given a new injection of funding from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, to let the robots loose on another harvest in a bid to increase yield.
This is not the first example of robotic farming. Right across the world, cows are being milked with robots, agricultural drones are monitoring the health of crops, and robots are monitoring soil, injecting seeds, and watering plants. Robots are not only driving themselves, but some are also making their own decisions. Many of these projects are just getting off the ground, or are part of research projects, but the future of farming could be about to undergo a robotic revolution.
This technology is hailed by some for increasing output, reducing labour costs, and eliminating human error, but others are concerned about disrupting the human connection with nature, and driving a wedge between humans and food.
Farming without farmers
One of those concerned is environmental activist and scholar Vandana Shiva, who raised the topic of farming without famers at the International Permaculture Conference in India at the end of 2017.
“While people are losing their citizenships, robots are being given citizenship. If we continue on the path of destruction, within a 100 years we will be extinct,” she said.
Vandana is adamant that human extinction is not an inevitability, and for her there is one answer: focusing on permaculture, with agricultural systems which are designed to be permanent.
A report from the McKinsey Global Institute that looks at automation across all sectors has estimated that by 2030, between 400 million and 800 million people around the world could lose their jobs as a result of automation, and would need to find new jobs.
For those who rely on agriculture for income, this could be disastrous news. However, the report has some words of reassurance: “History would suggest that such fears may be unfounded: over time, labour markets adjust to changes in demand for workers from technological disruptions, although at times with depressed real wages.”
The digital harvest
Tom spends his days monitoring plants, tracking the health and development of crops, and assessing what fertilisers are needed. He lives on a farm, in a kennel. Tom also happens to be a robot.
Tom is one element of the Small Robot Company operating system, supported by three other robots. Dick and Harry live off-site and are called in when needed; Harry plants the crops, while Dick deals with feeding and pest control. Wilma, who lives in Tom’s kennel, is the brains behind it all, turning Tom’s information into instructions for Dick and Harry. This system of small robots is currently being fine-tuned, but farms in England could soon be welcoming autonomous labour onto their land.
For Ben Scott-Robinson, founder of The Small Robot Company, autonomous agriculture offers an opportunity to increase food production without completely destroying the Planet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the world’s food production needs to increase by 70 percent before 2050 to accommodate the increasing population. Ben wants to be a part of rolling back the big industrial farming processes, which are doing so much environmental damage.
Ben says: “By having small robots, you counter a lot of the damage that’s being done by big industrial farming machinery, simply by the impact of their size. Ploughing is only necessary on a farm, because of the weight of the tractors. The tractors and the kit that they drag behind weigh tens of tonnes, and that compacts the soil.”
Without the impact of such heavy machinery, the soil is not compressed, and so does not need to be ploughed, Ben explains. The Small Robots, which weigh a few hundred kilos rather than tens of tonnes, can plant crops directly into the ground.
This is all about precision farming, and about understanding each individual plant. When a weed appears, it is plucked out of the ground by a robot, rather than being sprayed with weed killing chemicals. Pesticides and fungicides are applied directly to plant leaves, with the aim that no chemicals will touch the ground and enter the soil. This method will use just 1% of the chemicals which are currently used, and Ben sees this as a realistic future alternative to organic farming.
He does not believe robot harvests will distance humans from nature. In fact, he thinks AI can help farmers understand crops better. “Human relationships with food at the moment are very removed. People don’t know what meat is unless it’s packaged up and put on a shelf,” he says.
Through a digital harvest, farmers can learn about the relationship between the soil, the weather, and the crops that come out of the ground. As the small robots gather this information, they also work out which parts of the land are most effective.
Ben adds: “Although our ultimate aim is to use the information autonomously, so farmers don’t need to make those day-to-day decisions, we’re providing a level of granular detail which farmers can pick up on and understand and use to their own benefit.”
There is no denying that an influx of robots will have an impact on employment. But Ben says that rather than putting humans out of work, it will just change the kind of jobs that are available in agriculture. There could be careers with more progression opportunities, and opportunities to explore different ways of generating revenue.
“There will be less time doing the ploughing, the spraying, and the fixing of tractors. What it allows farmers to do is to concentrate on diversifying how they run their farm, and what their farm does.”
He says that agritourism has huge potential, and with robots tending the fields, workers could be freed up to generate more income. Instead of making wheat, they could be baking bread.
The future of robot farming
“We have these romantic notions of what agricultural work is. We all think we’ll be gathering some vegetables in a Tuscan field, but the reality is getting up at dawn and working really hard in a cold, tough environment. The willingness and the availability of people to do that is a big factor,” says Dr Matt Reed, senior research fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Institute.
Matt suggests that the use of robots within farming could offer liberation for many people, who could find a reprieve from tough manual labour. Crucially though, he says the people involved must be consulted.
This is not the first time farming has faced new technology, and the introduction of more robots could change rural life once more.
“A century ago, any given village would have had hundreds of agricultural workers going out every morning, working really hard in the fields. Now we have a handful of people using machines. What we’re looking at in the future, is that those people will deploy machines remotely,” Matt says.
The result of that change will inevitably be a countryside that is home to fewer and fewer agricultural workers. But if the focus stays on small robots which are cheap to buy, Matt suggests that it may give smaller farms an opportunity to become more viable.
When it comes to the future of this technology, it is the shape and form that matters, Matt says. What also matters, is who drives the changes and makes the decisions.
Photo credit: Top photograph with thanks to Harper Adams University, and below, The Small Robot Company