How Close are You to a Hands-Free Crop?

June 28, 2018 02:09 PM
How Close are You to a Hands Free Crop

All those late nights and countless hours spent in the cab may be a thing of the past sooner than you think.

A team of researchers at Harper Adams University in the U.K. rewired basic farm equipment and successfully harvested 4.5 tons of barley – hands free. With the use of an autonomous tractor to sow and spray crops, an unmanned combine, a rover to take soil samples and a drone to capture images and monitor growth — the team never had to set foot into the field. Will this be possible for everyday farmers?

“Harper Adams University is a front runner for small autonomous vehicle farming,” says Dr. Daniel Flippo, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Kansas State University. “I am all for the competition, because it brings out some really great ideas by people that have never farmed, which I think is needed for small autonomous vehicle farming.”

Some farmers are already taking the first step to using robots. Drones are becoming more widely used to collect data, check on crops and show the farmer where to spend more time. University extensions now teach high school students how machines can change the future of the industry by providing robotic kits and activities. When it comes to adapting these ideas to large-scale reality, some companies and individuals are already in motion:

In 2014, Rowbots were introduced as a means of applying nitrogen fertilizer. Rowbots work in teams traveling between rows to deliver nitrogen to plants as needed and ensuring it is not overused.

In 2016, agBOT Challenge started up in Indiana, where teams competed to be the first self-propelling planter. Each year, new teams participate, bringing farmers closer to the reality of a hands-free crop.

“The new generation is more tech savvy,” explains Flippo. “This is seen in the adoption of quadcopters, etc. for remote sensing. But taking a farmer off the land and having a robot do it does not sit well with many, and the adoption rate may be low due to this. [This technology] probably will be adopted first by techies and large corporation farmers.”

The future of farming is upon us and looks to be one of less labor-intensive work and greater technological success. In addition, with our increasing population, robots may be the solution to ensure enough crops are harvested to feed the next generation.

“To feed the world in 2050 we can make advancements in GMO and precision agriculture, but these are not enough,” says Flippo. “We can also make advancements with machinery and machinery that doesn't compress the soil or cause road travel risks, we can expand the arable land as well using robots that can farm on high slopes.”

How close is a robot from knocking on your barn door? Estimates indicate in the next 10-20 years, the cost of a total robotic system should be less than the price of a large tractor — especially considering labor costs would be close to nonexistent. A farmer’s only challenges could be keeping batteries charged and maintaining an accurate GPS signal.

Robots may be the key to the future.


- Written by Hannah Miller

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