Monday, April 25, 2016

Precision Farming Reboot - A new paradigm using sensors, robots and lasers

Precision Farming Reboot - A new paradigm using sensors, robots and lasers

As my wife and I drove down a rural Iowa highway last week, we began speculating about the next revolution in field management. Currently, tractors blindly and mechanically groom rows of crops spaced only wide enough to accommodate their massive tires. Large quantities of herbicides and insecticides are broadcast, leaching into streams and aquifers. In turn, specially bred seeds, resistant to these chemicals must be purchased as a part of a proprietary program.

Instead, I imagined swarms of spider-shaped robots with travel legs long enough to keep their body suspended above the crops. Work arms, tipped with sensors and tools, could maneuver to any spot.

  • ·         Plants could be grown in an efficient honeycomb pattern, wasting less space.
  • ·         A database of every plant, with its progress, could be maintained.
  • ·         Instead of making care decisions on a whole-field basis, adaptive algorithms could adjust interventions for increasingly small or divergent areas.
  • ·         Micro-doses of fertilizer/nutrients could be injected under the surface, sufficient for each plant without over-spray or windblown residue.
  • ·         Individual weed plants could be identified and selectively uprooted or destroyed.
  • ·         Individual bugs could be identified and selectively destroyed.
  • ·         Individual bugs could be harvested using a suction device. Some bugs contain valuable chemicals such as dyes or pharmaceutical components.
  • ·         Crop plants could be automatically thinned or even transplanted to more-sparse areas of a field.
  • ·         Robots could work continuously, even at night, returning to an energy source to recharge or exchange batteries when necessary.
  • ·         Some labor-intensive jobs, such as harvesting strawberries, currently require large amounts of manual labor for brief periods. Machines would be easier to store and transport from place to place than seasonal workers.

The next day, I discovered that researchers at Leibniz University in Germany are exploring how to use lasers to kill weeds. Cameras feed pattern-recognition software to identify weed plants and distinguish them from the crop plants. Tunable lasers aim at the most vulnerable areas of weeds, to kill them. During their experimental trials, the German researchers found that lesser intensities of laser light actually stimulated plant development. This discovery raises the potential for non-chemical stimulation of crop growth.

Researchers in Israel are developing multi-spectral sensors for identifying fruits and vegetables along with their stages of ripeness. These systems are already able to correctly identify 80-85 percent of fruit on a plant. They are also designing grasping tools that can remove individual pieces without damaging them or the remaining plant.

This is a field (pun intended) to keep your eye on. The core issue of agricultural productivity has always been the limitations of manpower. Perhaps it is time to look away from ever-larger mega-machines. These mini-factories-on-wheels are becoming highly automated themselves, in any event. An agricultural technology revolution is afoot.

Further, we are beginning to recognize the shortsightedness of consuming large quantities of just a few single vitamin- and mineral-deficient crops (wheat and corn, especially) while depending on ever-stronger pesticides and herbicides and ever-larger machines.

Our future will be a place for increasingly smarter and more-flexible machines. The next step is to teach highly automated machines to perform the tedious judgment-intense precision farm work that we can no longer afford to do in person.

David Satterlee