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Wild Blue Yonder

January 4, 2014
By: Ben Potter, Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 
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Today’s science fiction storyline could be tomorrow’s reality

No one knows exactly what the future will bring. It’s true; just ask your local meteorologist, who struggles to predict the weather a week in advance. Futurists from decades past gave us promises of flying cars, colonies on the moon and other fantastic inventions that never came to pass.

Still, don’t discount tomorrow’s potential, says futurist David Zach. "We overestimate what we can do in the short term and underestimate what we can do long term," he says.

So while concepts such as vertical farming and smart dust sound like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel, they could be a viable part of agriculture’s future, Zach says.

vertical farming

Google your corn. The idea of smart dust originated in the early 1990s through an initial research project by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Research and Development Corpo-ration (RAND). Today, numerous researchers across the globe are working to create a viable prototype.

Put simply, smart dust is a series of tiny sensors that can wirelessly transmit data. Applied to agriculture, these sensors could monitor temperature, humidity and other micro-weather conditions on a per-field basis. Better yet, they could monitor the needs of individual plants, Zach says.

"It’s about harvesting information," he says. "What if you could put smart dust sensors on every corn plant and then Google your crop to see what it needs?"

Futurist Jim Carroll is also fond of this idea and takes it a step further. Plants might someday be able to analyze themselves, either through genetic coding or embedded computer chips, he says. Do your plants need a nitrogen boost or a sip of water? They’ll send alerts directly to your computer for you to take action.

What’s more, this data could serve as a new profit center for agriculture by selling hyper-local climate data to other industries, for example.

"The aggregation of this data and its conversion to useful actions will drive the profitability of a farming operation over the next decade," says ag futurist Bob Treadway. "It could be that the sale or licensing of the data will be a significant income stream for large farming operations beyond the next decade."

Driverless tractors, tractorless farms. It’s not that hard to imagine a driverless tractor. Several tractor companies already have working examples in devel­opment. But it takes a bit more imagination to picture a farm without tractors at all.

Could you even farm without a tractor? There are two possible scenarios where the answer to this question is yes. Zach explains the first scenario: Develop a hive of insect-sized drones with tiny payloads.

"Why couldn’t they deploy something like fertilizer or some other crop input?" he asks.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - January 2014
RELATED TOPICS: Farming 2025

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