How Robotic Farming Could Enhance Agricultural Sustainability
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.
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.
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.
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.