Precision ag guru Simon Blackmore stands next to Scamp, a selective harvester built with sensor technology to pick only lettuce that is grocery store ready.
Farming with robots
For more than 10 years, Simon Blackmore has patiently awaited an individual with an entrepreneurial spirit to help bring his robotic technology to life. But his ideas will likely turn agriculture upside down, as it’s known today.
The United Kingdom-based Harper Adams University researcher dreams of a "Blue Revolution." "We’ve had the Green Revolution with improved crop breeding," Blackmore says. "The next revolution will be blue; it’s often associated with engineering."
What’s the end goal of precision farming? "It should be trying to understand what is the minimum amount of energy that we put into the natural environment to produce crops," Blackmore explains. "Tractors, machines, seed coatings and fertilizer are forms of energy. Before precision ag, farmers threw this energy everywhere; we farmed by the average."
Precision agriculture, he says, reduces energy use by managing field zones. "When we break these zones down and use the smallest amount of energy possible, we get into robotics," Blackmore says, noting that the blue revolution will revolve around technology and smart systems.
"The fundamentals of farming will be the same, but the way we implement the technology
will be radically different," he says. "Farmers are trying to manage all the pressures of today—climate change, environmental, economic and political—using tractors that were designed 50 years ago. Surely we can design a tractor today that can go into the field when it’s wet or dry and put a seed in the ground."
Adoption Requirements. In order for farmers to adopt new technology, Blackmore says there must be three things embedded: knowledge to deal with the real-world environment, economics to make you money and psychology so it’s simple to use.
Auto-steer has all three of these characteristics, he explains, adding that it yielded 10% to 15% in additional savings.
Blackmore is not the only researcher trying to achieve net-zero energy environments. Svend Christensen, a researcher at The Faculty of Agricultural Sciences Research in Denmark, focuses on controlling weeds with technology.
"Use of herbicides can be reduced by at least 40% if weed control is carried out with spraying robots," Christensen says. "The amount of reduction depends on the requirements for precision and capacity."
The University of California-Davis Department of Engineering has developed a prototype of a micro sprayer, which is essentially a micro pump. It precisely targets individual plants with a jet. Each plant is identified, and the plants are localized with a camera system.
After analyzing several hundred images from different crops and fields, Christensen reports that in theory, savings could be up to 99% when targeting each weed seedling. Blackmore calls this "intelligently targeted inputs."
So why aren’t companies going gangbusters to explore these opportunities? Blackmore says equipment and chemical companies are not ready for a "blue revolution."
"It would turn their industry upside down," he says, predicting that these technologies will first be used in high-dollar crops, such as orchards, vineyards and vegetables.
- January 2014