Robot tractors, mini drones and real-time data: leading futurist presents the farming of tomorrow

The farms of the future will be managed from futuristic command centres where farmers can dispatch mini drones and robot tractors in response to real-time information, according to Canadian futurist Richard Worzel.

Speaking at BASF Canada’s Knowledge Harvest, a major event for farmers in North America, Worzel outlined an image of farming where a computerised butler would present data about moisture and temperature and enable the farmer to respond accordingly.

He described how farmers would be able to use robot tractors to plant seeds, which would make precision planting in response to soil conditions easy and effective.

farm-future-drone

Swarms of mini drones would be used to scout crops at low heights, providing readings on condition and growth rate, and digitally-generated maps would provide precise information about where to apply fertilizer and pesticides.

The future could even be organic: natural predators such as ladybugs could be dispatched in response to imminently-hatching pests.

Speaking ahead of the event, Worzak said: “The prospects for farms and farmers are probably better than they have been for fifty years or more.”

The technology Worzak describes could have a significant impact on crop yield, which is vital in a world where population growth is quickly outstripping food supply.

“Information technologies are going to allow farmers to do more with less: fewer inputs, better costs, higher yields,” Worzak explained.

Changes in technology elsewhere could also have an impact on what farmers are growing.

“Traditionally farmers have made their money off of three primary food sources,” Worzak said, referring to the “three fs” of farming: food, feed and fibre.

“Now technology is adding three additional sources,” he explained, outlining how many farmers will increasingly be growing crops for fuel, pseudo-plastics and pharmaceuticals.

There is considerable ongoing research across a host of industries about the use of plants in these areas, and it is likely that they will be increasingly used ahead of oil-based or chemically-derived products.

This could be bad news for consumers, though: farmers are likely to opt for whatever sells for the most, which means there could be a shortage of some food products if growing plastics turns out to pay more.

Farming is an area seeing huge growth in technological solutions. Genetically modified crops that are tailored to resist pests or have higher yields have been used for years in some areas of the world, and hydroponic and aquaponic solutions are increasingly being used in regions where space is at a premium.

Farming machinery is also going high tech. In 2011 Tractor manufacturers Valtra created a concept for their tractor of the future (pictured above and in the video). Named ANTS, it features a video game-style heads-up display, a modular design and the ability to work autonomously on basic tasks.

With farming drones in development and significant amounts being thrown into farm analytics, Worzel’s view of the farming future could be here before long.


Featured image courtesy of Valtra.


Scientists crack the £3.5bn potato disease

Scientists have produced a series of genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to one of their biggest threats – a disease that costs the world up to £3.5bn ($5.8bn/€4.2bn) each year.

In a three year study scientists managed to boost the resistance of Desiree potatoes to stop the onset of blight, which was responsible for the Irish Potato famine in 1845. It is hoped their work will reduce food wastage as well as producing environmental benefits due to a reduction in chemicals being sprayed on crops.

As a result of the study, during which the scientists used no fungicides, The Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre produced a potato that was immune to late blight.

The study came to a head in 2012 when the test potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. The scientists did not inoculate any plants but waited for traces of late blight to blow into the testing area naturally.

All of the genetically modified plants were resistant to the blight until the end of the experiment when all of the non-modified plants were infected.

The developments could significantly change the potato industry, which currently experiences more than £3.5bn of losses on an annual basis. This could not only lead to environmental benefits but help to increase the overall world food supply.

In the UK farmers spray fungicides 10-15 times to reduce losses to blight, which releases chemicals into the environment. It is hoped that growing blight-resistant crops will reduce the crop losses to the disease and reduce the number of times they need to be sprayed.

Scientists hope to replace chemical control with genetic control, though farmers might be advised to spray even resistant varieties at the end of a season, depending on conditions. Other blight-resistant potatoes already exist but are not widely available in the market because of other deficiencies.

For future development and to try and bring the research into the commercial potato market the scientists will now work with American potato company Simplot and the James Hutton Institute to develop the resistant genes. They hope to fully develop Desiree and Maris Piper varieties that will resist late blight.

Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory said: “Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,”

“With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favour of potatoes and against late blight.”

The full research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and The Gatsby Foundation, is set to be published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.


Image courtesy of Szczel (Flickr).