Sustainability

Published on August 25th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

9

How Robotic Farming Could Enhance Agricultural Sustainability

Old time tractor

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If you picture a grain farmer out tending a field, you might imagine someone sitting on the metal seat of a tractor like the one in the picture above, moving slowly across a field – perhaps the farmer has a straw hat.  That image seems attractive as long as you are not the farmer.  Fortunately, this isn’t the real situation in the developed world or we wouldn’t get anyone in our rapidly aging population to do full-time farming on the multiple thousand-acre farms that are typical of a modern, Midwestern family farm.

Today, a progressive farmer will typically be working in an enclosed, air-conditioned cab with surround sound, a cell phone, and an internet connection for tracking commodity futures or catching up on email.  Increasingly, the tractor is driving itself by computer and GPS except for occasional intervention.  I’ve carried on a number of protracted interviews with farmers who were in just this setting.  I know one farmer that ran much of his state senate campaign from a tractor or combine.  These new, sophisticated, farm vehicles are not just about keeping the farmer comfortable and multi-tasking.  They are important tools for making farming more sustainable.

View of a GPS enabled tractor

Auto-steer

Many modern tractors, combines, sprayers etc are set up with a feature called “auto-steer.”  It uses GPS to make sure that the tractor goes down rows that are precisely defined to eliminate any over-lap (fuel and time savings) and even to make sure that the wheels of all the equipment always go down the same rows (Controlled Wheel Traffic).  The idea is to limit the compaction from equipment to as small a proportion of the field as possible with the goal that most of the field is never driven on at all.  This combined with “no-till” farming methods means that the soil is allowed to build in as natural and healthy a way as possible.  Its a lot like “permaculture,” but on thousands of acres for a single family farm.  No fertilizer or seed is wasted on the wheel tracks.

Variable-rate Fertilization

This form of “precision agriculture” can be further enhanced with geo-referenced yield maps and soil maps so that the amount of fertilizer applied to different parts of the fields better matches how much the crop in that specific spot can use.

These sophisticated techniques save the farmer money on fuel and fertilizer, but in the process they reduce the “carbon footprint” associated with those inputs.  They also reduce the emissions of nitrous oxide – the potent greenhouse gas that is 310 times as powerful for warming potential as carbon dioxide.  If the nitrogen isn’t in the compacted soil or if there isn’t more applied than the plants can use, it is less likely to be converted to nitrous oxide.   Part of sustainability in agriculture is definitely tied to equipment technology.

The Future?

It is not that hard to imagine a time in the future where the “farmer” will sit in an office or a house, potentially far away from the farm, remotely tending several tractors working on the same or different farms. The “tractors” could essentially be robots with minimal human supervision.  The farmers that are on-location could concentrate on the tasks that are more limited to human capabilities than boring things like steering a tractor or metering out fertilizer.  This is all available technology, not like the personal jet-pack I was promised as a boy.

I know that isn’t a very romantic vision of farming.  If you want, you are welcome to try your hand at classical farming.  You will just have trouble being as sustainable as your robot-enabled neighbors.

Old tractor photo from althewebmaster.  Modern tractor photo from NASA.



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



  • russ

    Farming is hard work but that alone is inadequate – you must work smart as well as you are pointing out is done and more improvements are possible.

    In much of the 3rd world farming is just a peasant with an oxen and a plow – hard work but zero smart put into it. The results are also not much – just enough to keep him and his family alive but barely.

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  • virupanna kumbar

    sir ,i would like to know more about this agrobots,,,you say the production is incresed as compared to traditional methods,,at what percent it increases …?i need your assistance,,,

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Virupanna,

    I imagine that there will be many robots on farms in the future, but for now what is being used is called “auto-steer” technology. The tractor and the implements it pulls (seeders, sprayers…) are automatically steered using GPS signals from satellites and, in the best case, from local towers. The efficiency comes from never over-lapping passes or missing areas. In the longer term the productivity increases because the “controlled wheel traffic” means that most of the field surface is NEVER compressed by the weight of the equipment rolling over it. These gains are on the order of 5% early on and then as much as 20%, particularly on sloping fields where it is hard to steer accurately by hand. These advantages are mainly appropriate for large scale farming and have been most widely adopted in areas like Argentina and Australia where there are extremely large, but privately owned (not rented) land.

    I’m sure that someone could work on robots for small scale farming to take on some of the most backbreaking and tedious tasks. Maybe another reader is aware of such efforts. Eventually birth rates will be falling in the entire world and it will be really hard to find labor. I hope that the nuclear disaster does not discourage Japan from technology in general because they have been leaders on robot technology (and comics).

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