Wild Blue Yonder

January 3, 2014 06:08 PM
Wild Blue Yonder

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.

Rory Aronson explains the second possible scenario: Treat your fields like an inkjet printer.

Aronson, an affable, fresh-out-of-college mechanical engineer, was inspired by how printers work. A stepper motor carries the ink cartridge back and forth along a track so droplets of ink can be applied precisely to paper. Aronson built a prototype of a farm machine called FarmBot that
operates on this same principle—the stepper motors propel seed injectors, water nozzles and other attachments on fixed tracks. A tool mount and cross slide allow the attachments to move left, right, up and down.

FarmBot would open up a world of customizable farming opportunities, Aronson says.

"Each plant can be watered, fertilized and sprayed individually and precisely with an optimized regimen that changes throughout the plant’s life
cycle," he says. "Also, plant life cycles do not have to start and end at the same time. Instead, any open space can be immediately replanted."

Nowhere to go but up?
Today’s farmers are under mounting pressure. They need to grow an ever-increasing amount of food to keep up with the ever-climbing world population. Yet the amount of arable land is in gentle decline, due mainly to soil degra­dation and urban encroachment.

It turns out urbanization might not only be a problem in farming; it could also be a solution. Savvy entrepreneurs such as John Edel are trying to recapture abandoned urban spaces and use them to produce food. In Edel’s case, he converted an abandoned Chicago warehouse into a self-sufficient farm capable of producing fish, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms.

Dickson Despommier, author of "The Vertical Farm," says a number of factors point to the continued exploration of vertical farming, including volatility in traditional farming and new technologies that would allow vertical farms to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively.

"It now appears likely that vertical farms of a wide variety will become a common feature of the global urban landscape over the next decade as a global industrial-level response to our ever-changing climate," he says.

Concepts such as smart dust or vertical farming won’t arrive all at once, and they might not arrive at all, Zach says. So while it’s important to track trends, stay true to your principles.

"It’s important to know what the next change will be, but it’s vastly more important to know what doesn’t change," Zach says. "Principles transcend time."  

Change is certain, but what sort of changes are in store for production agriculture? Find out more at www.FarmOfTheFuture.net

You can e-mail Ben Potter at bpotter@farmjournal.com.

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