In Newport, Shropshire, there lies a one-hectare field of barley that farms itself. Instead of humans, a fleet of automated machines plant, monitor and harvest the crop. It’s an experiment run by Hands Free Hectare, a team of researchers and agricultural professionals from Harper Adams University.
“The idea was to start thinking about tackling the plateau in UK agriculture of the past 15 years,” says Jonathan Gill, a robotic researcher on the project. “It’s intended to break into the idea that automation can actually do the job, with technology that’s available.” In 2018, this type of farming will become the norm.
Hands Free Hectare is part of the growing trend of precision farming, wherein automated machines perform human tasks more efficiently – collecting reams of data on soil, crop disease and climate impacts that can be used to pinpoint problems, tailor farming methods and boost production. It aims to help farmers meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population by plugging some of the gaps in our food system that have been opened by political upheaval and climate change. The opportunity is significant: according to researchandmarkets.com, the market for precision-agriculture devices and services is predicted to grow in 2018 to $4 billion (£3.12bn) – and it’s being driven forward by the ubiquitous, versatile and accessible drone.
In the Shropshire field, drones survey the plot, gathering image data and collecting and sampling grain directly from plants, enabling farmers to remotely judge when it’s time for harvest. Gill likens it to the time-saving efficiency of self-driving cars.
“You can use this automated system to work your land without having to physically concentrate, while getting better yields with lower inputs,” he says. In 2018, researchers will trial a new crop – most likely wheat. And, with the harvested barley, they also intend to make the world’s first “hands-free beer”.
In the United States alone, there are forecast to be 300,000 commercial drones by 2018, and agriculture will be their second-biggest market, after infrastructure, according to accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
One growing application is to use drones for multispectral imaging on farmland, using sensors to detect wavelengths of light that humans cannot see. This can reveal the early spread of disease in plants, invasion by pests or nutrient deficiencies in soil. That helps farmers to focus the application of pesticides and fertilisers – saving time and money and reducing environmental impacts.
In 2018 and beyond, these applications will become indispensable to farmers. “Eventually we’ll see drones integrated into the national airspace. Companies are going to commission drones to stay up there [and survey farms] for long periods of time,” predicts Nikhil Vadhavkar, president and CEO of Raptor Maps, a Boston-based company that makes software to tailor drones to farmers’ specific needs. “I think drones can and should be used much more surgically.” Raptor Maps is working with potato farmers to produce drone-based imaging software that can determine from the air which farming practices are generating the best-quality potatoes.
A UCLA study estimated that 30 per cent of city traffic consists of people looking for parking. In 2018, Audi will trial self-parking cars in Boston that can find their own spots in a special autonomous car garage, and save space by parking closer together because people don’t have to get in or out.
Drones are finding footing in Africa too, in countries such as Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia, for instance, where the challenges of climate change are felt especially on the small-scale farms that produce some 70 per cent of the continent’s food supply.
“It’s about giving better data earlier, helping to quantify risks and model responses to threats,” says Geoff Simm, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security. Looser legislation in Africa is also accelerating the take-off -and take-up – of commercial drones, fuelling the rise of new drone companies.
In 2018, Simm and his colleagues plan to work with local companies to roll out a programme for integrating drones into farming in a multiple-country effort. “These technologies can help us spot at a large scale where there are big gaps between potential yield and actual yield,” he says.
Farm drones will have another effect: attracting people to an industry with a diminished workforce, says Simm: “In the future, farmers are more likely to become drone pilots than soil diggers.”
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