Scientists and farmers are increasingly realizing that the solution to global hunger and food stability lies in “smart farming” methods and agricultural technology. Gone are the days when farmers had to be ankle-deep in the soil doing back-breaking labor for mere sackfuls of harvest. The farmers of the future have become bold and they are embracing technological advancements not just because they want to, but because they must.
The Economist cites a few of the current technologies that the agriculture industry has adapted.
Farm management software allows farms to upload varied and large amounts of data to the cloud through the use of sensors in the soil. It spectroscopically measures the amounts of natural fertilizer sprayed to the crops. This can be adjusted and modified in real time.
Forget crop dusters, drones have completely taken over. Drones are used in farming for surveying and flying multispectral cameras over farms. Some of these are quadcopters from Agribotix of Boulder, CO and the single-engine flying wing drone called the Agdrone which was developed by Honeycomb of Wilsonville, OR. French company Delair-Tech from Tolouse, on the other hand, has created a drone with long narrow wings so it can stay in flight for longer periods. Drones are ideal for use in smaller parcels of land, but for large estates, farmers still prefer satellites.
The use of satellites offer broad and frequent coverage which drones need to catch up on in the years to come. CubeSats are small satellites which are fitted with multi-spectral cameras. The company, PlanetLabs, is based and San Francisco, and they keep about 30 of these in orbit. The satellites piggyback on commercial launches, and are easily replaceable. They can take pictures of designated areas once a week or more frequently, so that problems in large farms can be addressed more thoroughly. Satellite images are also archived and made as comparison points when projecting harvests and tracking how productive the crops have been. The data is later on used to forecast the size of harvests for specific periods.
Agricultural robot makers are seeking to introduce robot workers on the ground to work for extended periods. The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney is perfecting its four-wheeled and solar driven robot which can identifies and zaps weeds in vast fields of vegetables. Another version is used between plants and supplies additional doses of fertilizer to the plants. Another area that robotic is eyeing is picking fruits and vegetables. This is a time-consuming and labor intensive aspect of farming that can be made cheaper and more efficient by automation. Spanish firm AGROBOT has created the SW6010, a robot which uses a camera to screen which strawberry fruits are ripe for the picking. Industry leaders believe that farms in developed countries will largely be robot-operated in as little as 10 years from now.
Growing Underground and All Over
The lack of arable land has forced urban farmers to look into growing crops underground as well as vertically. Subterranean voids or abandoned bomb shelters are being used to grow vegetables using indoor hydroponics. The bold and innovative difference, however, is the use of LEDs as the main source of illumination. All over the world, old meatpacking plants, factories, as well as warehouses are being converted into smart farms. They make use of vertical farming, and the entire area is wirelessly monitored and controlled. While these farms may be small in scale in number right now, they represent the future of farming and agriculture in the years to come.
All organisms have a natural process of mutation, but genome editing hopes to create genetically advanced and resistant plants and animals in order to increase food production. This trend will continue in the future, albeit with much resistance from people who have yet to understand that eating genetically modified crops is not harmful to human health.
There are countless bold ideas and controversial projects in the field of agriculture and food technology which will be adapted to increase the world’s food supply. Supporting an exploding population is a tall order and now requires extra ordinary measures and techniques to solve. Fortunately, there will always be forward-thinking individuals who are not afraid to present creative ideas and take bold steps towards implementing them.