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.

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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.


Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.